Isis brings its war to Lebanon - and it could be key to a masterplan

Battle for Arsal exposes new front in expansion of self-styled caliphate

After all the warnings and all the clichés about a war that would “spill” over Syria’s border, the savage fighters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Sunni Muslim “caliphate” have at last arrived in Lebanon.

So far, the Lebanese army has lost 13 of its soldiers in a costly battle with rebels to retake the north-eastern Sunni town of Arsal – on the Syrian border and hitherto a resupply base for Islamists trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad – while the conflict has generated the same gruesome events which followed Islamist victories in Iraq and Syria: reports of civilian executions, government soldiers taken hostage, at least 12 civilians confirmed dead, including five children, and the prospect of long and bloody fighting ahead.

The world’s attention, of course, has been concentrated on the slaughter in Gaza. In the Middle East, tragedy must come one day at a time, so the Syrian civil war and the Isis takeover of western Iraq continued in the shadows of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the Islamists’ arrival in Lebanon and the prospect of a mini-civil war around Arsal – and perhaps as far as Tripoli – could have repercussions far graver than the Gaza war. As Islamists take over Lake Mosul and other districts from the Kurds in northern Iraq and press harder against Syrian government troops, their extension into Lebanon marks their furthest progress yet from the Tigris towards the Mediterranean. In Arsal, the fighters – officially from el-Nusra, whose own members are already joining those of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate – adopted their usual practice of seizing large buildings in the centre of the town (in this case, the technical college, a hospital and a mosque) and clinging to them in the hope that their opponents would disintegrate. The Lebanese army, which has twice defeated Islamist rebellions inside Lebanon in the past 15 years, claimed to have retaken the college, but the statements from both the Lebanese commander and Prime Minister may be taken as accurate: that the takeover of Arsal had been planned long in advance and is part of a far greater rebel strategy.

The Lebanese army says it has so far killed 50 fighters – a tally that sounds very like the Syrian army’s premature claims of victory on the other side of the border – but government forces in Lebanon are unlikely to fall back. Sunni Muslims make up the larger part of the Lebanese forces whose units are among the best integrated of Middle East armies – and this has never prevented them from attacking and subduing Sunni Muslim rebels in the past, first at Sir el-Diniyeh in the northern mountains in 2000, and then within the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared in 2007, at a cost of almost 500 dead soldiers, fighters and civilians.

Video: Who are Isis?

For more than a year, the Lebanese army has tried vainly to close the frontier east of Arsal, and a Syrian army victory over rebels in Yabroud on the other side of the border earlier this year suggested that Sunni insurgents might leave Arsal lest they be cut off. But their resurgence shows that the Syrians have nothing like the control they have been claiming in the frontier lands. Indeed, the Nusra men had no difficulty in seizing 15 soldiers and almost as many Internal Security Force personnel when they first struck at Arsal. A battle between those Sunni forces opposing the Assad regime in Damascus – who are also responsible for the bombing of Shia targets in Lebanon – and Lebanese troops was almost inevitable. Less than two weeks ago, Lebanese special forces in Tripoli killed Mounzer el-Hassan, a Sunni “jihadist” logistics officer who was reported to have given suicide belts to bombers who attacked Beirut’s Shia southern surburbs and the Iranian embassy in the capital. Those present at the battle said that el-Hassan was playing taped Islamic music as he finally died, when a hand grenade – possibly in his own possession – blew up in his face.

His death followed shortly after the capture of Houssam Sabbagh, a Salafist militant who led Sunni militia forces in recent battles against Alwite Shias in Tripoli. Sabbagh, who has fought in Afghanistan, Chechenya and in Iraq against US forces, was one of the few Tripoli leaders who refused to participate in a government “security” plan for the city.

The battles in Syria, however, are more complex. While Isis – which still uses its acronym of the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Levant despite its incorporation into what al-Baghdadi calls the “Islamic State” or caliphate – has strengthened its position in Deir el-Zour and neighbouring villages (with its usual ferocious executions and heads-on-stakes), the Syrian military seems intent on blasting rebels out of the Damascus suburbs, especially Douma, a district which lies close to the main road north of the capital. If al-Baghdadi’s men are fighting for control in the east of the country, Assad doesn’t want them taking the place of less spirited rebels around Damascus.

Reports of independent resistance groups who oppose both Assad and Isis – and supposedly call themselves “White Shrouds” – should be taken with the usual Syrian caution. Various militia outfits of both Sunni and mixed persuasions have strode fitfully onto the stage of the civil war over the past two years, only to vanish or merge into larger rebel or government forces.

But just as they must abide by tribal rules in Iraq, Islamists have found it dangerous to take on individual Syrian tribes in the “Jazeera” plateau north of Deir ez-Zour. They may have no love for Assad, but they will not allow fighters from Algeria or Chechenya to rule their tribal lands.

More disturbing, however, is the news that Sunni gunmen from the caliphate may have taken Iraq’s largest dam outside Mosul from Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas.

The Kurds enlarged their territory by perhaps 40 per cent when the Iraqi army fled the northern Iraqi city, but the reputation of their supposedly unconquerable peshmerga army is taking a battering now that they have admitted losing villages close to the dam.

If the Islamists can capture the entire facility, they would technically have the ability to close off the waters from Baghdad – or flood the capital city, whose Shia government has proved itself incapable of governing – or recapturing – Sunni territory in Iraq.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test