Political and security sources are indicating that a decisive battle will take place in the next few weeks between security forces and jihadi militants holed up on the outskirts of Arsal.
The expected round of fighting on the outskirts between the Lebanese Army and militants from ISIS and Nusra Front will likely have a significant effect on Lebanon’s political scene, a high-ranking security source told The Daily Star. The battle could in particular have a compromising effect on negotiations to release 25 Lebanese servicemen being held by the militant groups since August of last year.
The negotiations, which are shrouded in secrecy, have been progressing positively, security sources and the families of the captive servicemen have reported.
According to the security source, ISIS or Nusra will attempt to hit the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah in the next few weeks. The Army is poised to launch a decisive battle against the two armed groups in a bid to rescue the hostages and bring them back to their families, nearly nine months after they were taken.
The source explained that many factors must be taken into consideration before such a battle, citing the control of ISIS over wide parts of the Syrian Qalamoun region and Arsal’s outskirts as a logistical point. Many Nusra militants and members of the Free Syrian Army have reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS, the source said, and it’s now clear that ISIS only cares about increasing its support base in the Qalamoun region.
More than 5,000 militants are thought to be fighting for ISIS in the rugged Qalamoun region.
Many national and regional parties have attempted to work with Lebanese security officials to mediate between them and the jihadi groups over the hostage case. One mediator, who requested anonymity, confirmed to The Daily Star that military offensive measures are likely to be implemented, as ISIS is determined to achieve its strategic goal in Arsal.
“ISIS is planning to announce a central region emirate and seize full control of the Lebanese outskirts that are characterized by a porous border with Syria,” the mediator said. “But [ISIS] has yet to reveal the identity of its new Qalamoun emir after the death of Abu Aysha al-Banyasi, who was killed last month by Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi, the delegate sent by Baghdadi to unify fighters under the banner of ISIS.”
Maqdisi arrived in Qalamoun to represent Baghdadi immediately after Lebanese policeman Ali Bazzal was executed by Nusra in December, the mediator said. “It happened after they felt things were starting to get out of their control.”
Maqdisi’s mission was “to unite all militant groups in the area under ISIS by making them pledge allegiance to Baghdadi, threatening to kill them if they didn’t,” the mediator said.
Considering the nature of the relationship between ISIS and Nusra, who are enemies elsewhere in Syria but partners of convenience in Qalamoun, the mission affected the relationship between Maqdisi and Banyasi due to a disagreement over allegiances and relations with the Nusra Front.
“The threat wasn’t going to pass unnoticed by Banyasi, who tried to defy the will of Baghdadi,” the mediator said. “So Maqdisi shot him and immediately left the area with an accomplished mission.”
ISIS is now receiving more fighters to join its ranks and is preparing for a decisive battle, the intermediary added, while keeping the identity of the new Qalamoun emir under wraps.
“Maqdisi is a security figure par excellence,” the mediator said. “He is a 28-year-old Palestinian who has a Jordanian passport. He studied law and speaks several foreign languages, and has a rare political and diplomatic astuteness.”
The mediator added that Maqdisi was tall and often mentions killings and beheadings in his speech as a way of intimidating others, and was never reluctant about telling him that he enjoyed spreading fear.
“This is what God ordered us to do,” he once told the mediator.
ISIS is well informed about the Lebanese political situation and works to manipulate it, while Nusra knows how to use the media to serve its interests, the mediator concluded.