As the whole world watches ISIS in Kobane and Kirkuk, Sunni militant groups are about to make a big play on Lebanon, a far less publicized ISIS front. Extremist detachments scattered over the western border of Syria make near daily attacks on Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) stationed there. In Syria’s An-Nabek District, Al Nusra Front and ISIS have ostensibly become a joint fighting force. In August, the two groups worked together to conquer the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal. After several days of fighting they were repelled back to the peaks of Syria’s Qalamoun Mountains. Since then, the Lebanese military has consolidated its forces in the area, squashing any hope among the militants of regaining a footing in the city. As severe winter weather rocks the whole region, the jihadi cells will desperately seek refuge on lower ground. Just last night, Al Nusra front killed six LAF soldiers during an ambush in the Lebanese Christian town of Ras Baalbek. The Syrian town of Zabadani will be the next target of the militant groups and after its capture, ISIS will prey on the divisions within Lebanon to take control of the Bekaa Valley.
Zabadani is a strategically ideal city in that it’s at the foot of the Qalamoun mountain range and would open supply routes to Damascus, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon without relying on regime-controlled roads. Syrian military presence in the city is limited to a few bunkers the soldiers rarely leave. Al Nusra, who has conquered virtually all of the neighboring Golan Heights and ISIS, a group whose speciality is quick mobilization, could easily overrun the Syrian soldiers in the city. Perhaps most significantly, Zabadani is centrally adjacent to one of the weakest area of Lebanon’s border, between Kousayya and Majdal Anjar, the western edge of the Bekaa Valley.
This porous border area is guarded by the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) – a task outsourced by Hezbollah and funded by the Assad regime. Eventually, Hezbollah’s newly formed “Resistance Brigade” is meant to supplement the PFLP-GC bases in the area. Until then, the group on its own remains poorly funded and ill prepared to stop a major ISIS offensive against them. But what would make this offensive so unique and particularly terrifying is that it would be a pincer maneuver from outside Lebanon and within, using militants posing as refugees as the second arm of the attack.
Since the Syrian Civil War began, approximately two million refugees have crossed the border into Lebanon but only an estimated half of them have registered with the government or major human rights organizations. The others live illegally in cities and towns or on the outskirts of villages in tents. Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister, Rashid Derbas recently called the presence of the refugees a “terrorist radiation”. It’s not just the potential for embedded militants that pose a threat. Last Monday, two Syrian infants froze to death outside the town of Arsal after their families were denied supplies by the government. These people are starving, desperate, and resent the state that is unwilling or unable to provide them with basic amenities necessary for survival.
There are no mechanisms in place to control this surging population, making it easy for an ISIS militant to stroll across the border disguised as a refugee. Intelligence suggests there are dozens of ISIS and Al Nusra sleeper cells throughout Lebanon. The most relevant cells for the context of this attack are in the towns like Anjar, Barr Elias, and Deir Znoun, all immediately east of Zahle. After activating, the cells will push west as the militants in Zabadani will push east, causing the isolation of all the towns sandwiched between the two coordinated groups. The loss of this area, which would include PFLP-GC strongholds in Kfar Zabad and Henchmen, would serve as the new permanent launching pad of attacks for the Syrian militant groups and as the central supply line for militants throughout the region.
The cutting of the eastern Bekaa would be the spark that could set the entire country on fire. The recent Tripoli crackdown and Arsal hostage crisis have heightened polarization between ethnic groups. Support for ISIS is on the rise among Sunnis. Even in Tripoli and Beirut, many residents of Sunni neighborhoods have begun openly hanging ISIS flags on their doors and windows while across the street, their Shia neighbors hang Hezbollah flags and pictures of Bashar al-Assad. All these groups are also armed to the teeth. RPGs and automatic weapons are easy to find and can be cheaply acquired. Christian and Druze groups, remembering their unpreparedness during the last Civil War, have begun forming armed militias in preparation for major destabilization.
Sheikh Sirajeddin Zureikat, one of the leaders of the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, an Al Nusra Front affiliated militant group, threatened last Tuesday to “demolish Hezbollah in Beirut.” Such threats, while often idle, can sometimes carry a modicum of truth. Of course, ISIS needs the oil fields of Kobane and Kirkuk but the organization’s primary concern has always been territorial expansion above all else. The mantra most typically recited at ISIS rallies is “Baqiya Wa Tatamadad,” meaning “always lasting and expanding”. If ISIS and Al Nusra manage to retake Zabadani, eastern Lebanon will soon follow with ease, adding another colony to its already voracious empire.