Fierce clashes in Lebanon between the groups are an ominous sign that little can be done to stop further fighting
hree years into the ongoing civil war in Syria, a gradual escalation of the fighting between regime loyalists and opposition mercenaries spilled over into Lebanon, which now entangled the Lebanese army with Jabhat Al Nusra and other extremist groups.
Remarkably, embedded sectarian tensions surfaced in both countries, which were further exacerbated after the Hezbollah militia deployed its fighters to prop up the government of Bashar Al Assad in Damascus.
By claiming that it was fighting in Syria to prevent clashes in Lebanon, Hezbollah justified its actions, though it could not cut the umbilical cord that sustained opposition troops who found refuge among their displaced brethren and who received sorely needed supplies through the un-demarcated and un-patrolled borders.
Endless clashes in the Qalamun region that abutted the Northern Bekaa Valley, dragged the Lebanese army into a fight not of its making, with significant loss of lives among the rank-and-file, topped on August 2, 2014 with a bona fide hostage crisis.
Over the weekend, fierce clashes between Al Nusra militants and Hezbollah left at least 16 Nusra and as many as 16 Hezbollah fighters killed, although the militia acknowledged the loss of only 5. It released four names—Maher Ahmad Zu‘aytar, Fu’ad Mohammad Murtadah, Ahmad Hussain Salih and Nizar Taraaf—along with a photograph of “Commander Taraaf” wearing Army battle fatigues.
That feature added to the long-term frustration that many Sunnis felt with the Lebanese army, pointing the finger at the close cooperation between it and Hezbollah operatives in the 2013 ‘Abra operations against the Salafist leader Ahmad Al Assir and his followers in Sidon and, more recently, to the clashes in Arsal.
Videos broadcast on the Hezbollah-owned Al Manar television station in 2013 following ‘Abra battles clearly showed several captured Sunni militiamen being marched away while an individual in uniform shouted “Ya Zainab”—a Shiite religious cry referencing Imam Ali’s daughter.
At the time, videos and pictures confirmed the presence of Hezbollah militiamen alongside Lebanese army units, as the former wore yellow bands around their arms, which clearly identified their affiliations.
While the Lebanese army imposed a news blackout on what occurred in Arsal in early August, various clashes in Tripoli’s super-sensitive neighbourhoods — that took on severe sectarian dimensions — raised Sunni eyebrows, even if the community’s leadership was on record for standing with the Lebanese army.
Ironically, a majority of the army’s soldiers were Sunnis, which was why extremists regularly called on their brethren to defect.
There was no denying that Hezbollah units moved along the border area with impunity, which belied the notion that the Lebaense army upheld its authority there, and that confirmed this weekend’s hostilities. According to press reports, Al Nusra gunmen attacked Hezbollah bases near Brital, south of the town of Baalbek, and the militia responded.
Because smugglers relied on the sparsely populated area to move with relative ease, Hezbollah maintained several military posts along inaccessible parts of the border, and previously clashed with the army whenever the latter deployed its forces to impose Lebanese authority.
Under the circumstances, and caught in the whirlwind of extremist confrontations between Hezbollah and Al Nusra elements, the conflict in Syria was likely to exacerbate existing tensions in Lebanon and may well spiral into an all-out war between the two.
Observers, including two Lebanese officers who insisted on anonymity when interviewed for this article, concluded Beirut could not prevent such inevitable battles.