US-backed Lebanese army is preparing to tackle IS near border

The Gaza Post | The News of Palestine – Lebanon

Seeking to end a years-long threat posed to neighboring towns and villages by the extremists, Lebanon’s US-backed military is gearing up for a long-awaited assault to uproot hundreds of Islamic State militants from a remote corner near Syrian border.

The assault will be performed in cooperation with the militant group Hizballah and the Syrian army on the other side of the border — although Lebanese authorities insist they are not coordinating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

However, the assault could prove costly for the under-equipped military and risk activating IS sleeper cells in the country.

Since the so-called Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011, the small Mediterranean nation has been spared the wars and chaos that plagued several countries in the region. Nevertheless, it has not been able to face threats to its security, including sectarian infighting and random car bombings, particularly in 2014, when militants linked to al-Qaeda and IS overran the border region, kidnapping Lebanese soldiers.

The years-long existence of such extremists near the border area has brought suffering to neighboring towns and villages, from shelling, to kidnappings of villagers for ransom. Car bombs made in the area and sent to other parts of the country, including the Lebanese capital, Beirut, have killed scores of citizens.

The army has achieved remarkable successes, with the direct aid of United States and Britain against the militants in the past year, slowly reclaiming back territory, including strategic hills recaptured in the past week. Authorities say it’s time for an all-out assault.

The planned military campaign follows the six-day military offensive by the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hizballah that forced al-Qaeda-linked militants to fall back from the area to the outskirts of the town of Arsal, along with thousands of civilians.

In a clear distribution of roles, the army is now expected to launch the attack on IS. In the past few days, the army’s artillery shells and multiple rocket launchers have been pounding the mountainous areas on the Lebanon-Syria border where IS held positions, in preparation for the offensive.

Drones could be heard around the clock and residents of the eastern Bekaa Valley reported seeing army reinforcements arriving daily in the northeastern district of Hermel to join the battle.

“The offensive from the Lebanese side of the border will be carried out by the Lebanese army, while Syrian troops and Hizballah fighters will be working to clear the Syrian side of IS militants”

The Lebanese army will carry out the offensive from the Lebanese side of the border, while Syrian troops and Hizballah fighters will, simultaneously, work on clearing the Syrian side of IS militants.

Hizballah has been fighting alongside Assad’s forces since 2013.

On Tuesday, the army’s top brass conferred with President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and interior and defense ministers at the Presidential Palace to plan operations in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

Maj. Gen. Saadallah Hamad said after the meeting that the committee took the “necessary counsel and decisions in order to achieve success in the military operations to eliminate the terrorists.”

According to experts, more than 3,000 troops, including elite Special Forces, are gearing up in the northeastern corner of Lebanon to participate in the offensive. The army will likely use weapons it received from the United States, including Cessna aircraft that discharge Hellfire missiles.

The US and Britain have supplied the Lebanese poorly-equipped army rather than the better equipped Iranian-backed Hizballah. The army received helicopters, anti-tank missiles, artillery and radars, as well as training. The American Embassy says the US has provided Lebanon with over $1.4 billion in security assistance since 2005.

However, the fight is expected long and will cost a lot.

According to Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, there are about 400 IS fighters in the Lebanese area, and hundreds more on the Syrian side of the border.

“It is not going to be a picnic,” said Hisham Jaber, a retired army general who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research in Beirut. “The Lebanese army will try to carry out the mission with the least possible losses.”

Jaber said the battle may last several weeks. “It is a rugged area and the organization (IS) is well armed and experienced.”

Source: The New Arab

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