Thursday, March 5, 2015

Offensive thoughts - Lebanon’s army and the campaign in Qalamoun

Amid alarming reports in Lebanon that jihadist groups in Qalamoun plan to attack the Lebanese Army and border villages in the coming weeks lies a different reality. It is the Syrian Army and Hezbollah that are planning an offensive in the border area, and the Lebanese Army is being incorporated into that effort.

Almost daily one Lebanese media outlet or another paints an apocalyptic picture of what lies ahead, once the snow melts in the mountain areas along the border. Most of the time the reports cite unnamed “security sources” warning of a jihadist onslaught, though there is desperately little evidence provided for their claims. It all smacks of an organized campaign to frighten the Lebanese and make them more amenable to the gradual integration of the army into the military strategy of Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

Doubtless there is some resistance in the army to such dynamics. However, the armed groups in Qalamoun have done themselves no favors by retaining Lebanese military personnel they abducted last summer, and by attacking army positions. In effect, they have acted precisely the way Hezbollah wants them to, in that their behavior has pushed the army to take a more aggressive role in hitting militant armed groups in Qalamoun.

According to one prominent Lebanese politician who follows events along the Lebanese-Syrian border carefully, an offensive may take place as soon as April, and the army has occupied advanced positions in preparation for this. If the ongoing campaign in southern Syria is any indication of what will happen, Hezbollah and possibly Iranian forces would spearhead the effort, with the Syrian regime providing air cover.

The role of the Lebanese Army would be to interdict the cross-border transfer of supplies and weapons to the armed groups in Qalamoun, and to protect Hezbollah’s flank. Both Syrian and Hezbollah officials have repeatedly called for coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies, but the nature of such coordination will have to be carefully addressed.

For instance, it remains to be seen whether the army will participate in a joint operations room with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. If it ever decides to do so, there will be risks for the army’s unity, as a substantial number of troops are Sunnis. However, there are also less obvious ways to act in unison if the army successfully opposes formal coordination.

In light of the recent regime offensives in the north of Syria, near Aleppo, and in the south of the country, in Quneitra and Daraa, the Iranian plan appears to be to clear border areas where Turkey and Jordan can assist groups fighting the Syrian regime. The scheme faltered in the north after Shiite forces mustered by Iran, especially Afghans, took heavy losses. There have been unconfirmed reports that Turkish intelligence and aid provided to the rebels was vital in this regard.

In the south, the Iranians and Hezbollah have been more successful and are trying to do two things: tighten regime control over areas providing access to Damascus; and capture high ground in the region around Daraa that would allow them to interrupt supplies from Jordan to the armed groups there.

In light of this, Qalamoun appears to be the next target. If the Iranians and Hezbollah can control access to and from the southern border areas in Syria, they can hinder the possibility of jihadist groups gaining in Lebanon’s Shebaa area, where there is a Sunni population. The same logic holds in northern Bekaa, where Sunnis also reside. Taking over Qalamoun would further secure lines of communication between Damascus and Homs, as well as neutralize the Lebanese border once and for all.

What is remarkable about this scheme is that the Iranians have managed to slot their agenda neatly into the new “war on terror.” For instance, the American ambassador in Beirut had this to say when the United States delivered military equipment to the Lebanese Army in early February: “We are fighting the same enemy, so our support for you has been swift and continuous. I am confident that, with the right equipment, Lebanon’s soldiers can defend Lebanon successfully.”

Some commentators correctly wondered about the use of the word “enemy.” While Jabhat al-Nusra may indeed be an American enemy, there are a significant number of rebels in Qalamoun who are simply young men from the area displaced by Hezbollah’s offensive in spring 2013. They may have joined jihadist groups not out of ideological conviction, but rather because those groups were the best organized and financed.

Such subtleties are lost today in the new crusade against terror. A neat dichotomy has been imposed, and, increasingly, Iranian and American interests appear to be parallel, at least in the American reading of the situation.

For instance, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said of the current Iranian-organized offensive against Tikrit: “If they perform in a credible way [against ISIS] then it will, in the main, have been a positive thing…” Dempsey added that this would only hold if sectarian tensions were not exacerbated. Yet how can a Shiite-led offensive against a major Sunni city, in which a central role is being played by Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, do anything but anger Sunnis?

But the Obama administration has ignored this. That’s why when the Qalamoun offensive begins, you can assume that the Americans will be on board, by action or by omission. A new order is emerging in the region and the United States has been a factor in helping bring it about. What occurs in Qalamoun is a small part of it, but never too small for Iran as it weaves its regional hegemony over a disintegrating Arab world. 

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