The Lebanese army has scored major victories in the ongoing offensive against Islamic State terrorists along the Syrian border, securing over a dozen of outposts, and raising a Spanish flag in solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks in Catalonia.
The Lebanese army seized 80 of 120 square kilometers from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters along its north-eastern border with Syria in its ongoing ‘Jroud Dawn’ military operation, which began 5am (0200 GMT) Saturday.
The Lebanese military operation coincided with a joint Syrian army-Hezbollah offensive across the border in the Qalamoun region of Syria.
Concentrating their campaign on the Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa mountainous areas, the Lebanese military announced that by Sunday, they had pushed the terrorists from 12 strongholds while killing at least 15 militants.
During the second day of fighting, the army captured around 30 square kilometers from IS fighters, the army said, adding that three Lebanese servicemen were killed and three others wounded amid the ongoing operation.
To mark their military success and “pay homage to the victims of Spain and around the world,” Lebanese soldiers raised a Spanish flag on a hilltop after securing an IS outpost in the Ras Baalbeck mountains.
On Thursday, a man plowed a van into a crowd of people in a popular tourist street in Barcelona, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100. Hours later, terrorists launched a second attack in the seaside town of Cambrils, injuring seven people, one of whom died. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Coinciding with the Lebanese army’s advance, the Hezbollah ‘s Al-Manar channel reported that across the border, Hezbollah fighters and the Syrian army also pushed forward, regaining an 87-kilometer area in the Qalamoun region and securing “a number of ISIL posts in Al-Suhreej and Harf al -Jafr.”
The Lebanese army offensive, which began early Saturday morning, followed IS’ shelling of cross border targets on Lebanese territory and incursions by IS terrorists who are trying to take over Lebanese villages to secure strategic fighting positions.
The fight to clear the final militants from Lebanon’s border has become a symbol of who can defend the country.
Beyond the military effort to recapture the rugged mountains outside the village of Ras Baalbek, is a campaign to refurbish the image of a national army increasingly overshadowed by the Iranian-backed guerrilla force Hezbollah.
Dubbed “the resistance” by supporters, Hezbollah has both a political wing that is part of the Lebanese government and a militia that fought neighbouring Israel to a war of attrition in 2006. It rejects calls for its disarmament, arguing it needs its weapons to defend the country.
The rise of Hezbollah — which since 2013 has supported Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in the fight against rebels and jihadists who want to overthrow him — has helped fuel Lebanon’s sectarian tensions, exacerbating the divisions between its Shia and Sunni Muslim blocs. In contrast, the army, made up of all the country’s sects, is seen as one of the few national institutions with which all Lebanese people can identify. Critics say Hezbollah’s gains are bruising the reputation of one of Lebanon’s few unifying forces.
“They are trying to market themselves and create this image of themselves as this national force and protectors of the republic, the government, and Lebanon’s borders,” said parliamentarian Amin Wehbi, a member of the Future movement, a Sunni party vehemently opposed to Hezbollah.
In the Christian town of Ras Baalbek, mayor Duraid Rahhal pores over a map in his office, which is just 7km away, he says, from the rocky hills where Isis is ensconced. There are no more than 1,000 militants estimated to be holed up there, compared to some 7,000 Lebanese soldiers equipped with sophisticated American artillery and vehicles. “We want to get rid of Isis as quickly as possible. But we want the army to do it, and the army is capable,” he says. “It has the firepower and the numbers and the artillery.”
Lebanon’s army is also under pressure from its main donor, the US, which provided it with more than $80m in equipment and training last year. The US lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group and does not want the Lebanese military co-operating with Mr Assad. The week of the Arsal attack, prime minister Saad Hariri met US President Donald Trump, who called the Iranian-backed movement a “menace to the region”. If the latest battle does not change the view that Lebanon’s army is playing a supporting role to a dominant Hezbollah, some diplomats privately speculated Washington could withhold future funding.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called for abolishing the resistance formula “army-people-resistance ” and replacing it with the “army-people-state formula”, stressing that no nation can maintain two armies as he hailed the Lebanese army over its border offensive against the Islamic State terrorist.
“In light of what the Lebanese army is doing today in Operation Dawn of the Outskirts, it would be unacceptable for things to continue in the status quo. Some were claiming that the army lacked the capabilities but it has been proven otherwise, seeing as when it is given the opportunity it is capable of achieve anything,” Geagea stressed.
“No state can maintain two armies and no state can rise without having exclusive control of the strategic decisions. All of their excuses have been refuted and I call on all political forces to do a reevaluation so that we all embrace the army-people-state golden formula,” the LF leader added.
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