Arsal is located in the North-Eastern of Lebanon, sharing a 50km stretch of border with Syria and sheltered by mountain terrain that surrounds the region. While the town may be labelled as insignificant in its size and infrastructure, in recent years, Arsal has become associated with Lebanon-Syria politics and as a geostrategic stronghold for Syrian militants. Arguably, what entrenched this status shift for Arsal was a five day siege conducted by Syrian militant groups in 2014 which is often referred to as “the Battle of Arsal”. The siege resulted in mass casualties and a hostage crisis, ultimately initiating long term engagement between Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Syrian militant factions such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front (known today as Jabhat el-Sham) in Arsal and particularly in its mountainous outskirts.
The developments following the major siege on the town on August 2nd, 2014, changed the course of history for Arsal indefinitely. While militants and terrorist networks were known to be operating out of Arsal for the years preceding this event, the five day attack was the first time the Syrian conflict had encroached violently on Lebanese soil, resulting in mass casualties, hostages, as well as an ongoing conflict situation that ultimately caused socio-economic insecurity.
Conflict outbreak in Arsal (2014-present)
- 2014: the 5 Days Conflict
On August 2nd, 2014, Liwa Fajr al-Islam’s Commander, Imad Ahmad Jomaa, (a Syrian group that had pledged allegiance to IS at the time), was arrested by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) inciting al-Nusra Front (know today as Jabhat el-Sham) and Islamic State (IS) factions in the broader Arsal region. The arrest is the most commonly acknowledged factor for the precipitating siege on Arsal, executed by the provoked militant parties. Armed NF and IS militants attacked and opened fire on Lebanese Army checkpoints before proceeding to siege the North-Eastern police station. While the sources around this incident are conflicting, it was reported that two civilians were initially killed and sixteen policeman and two soldiers captured during this event which initiated a heavily armed counter offensive operation by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
On August 5th, the LAF continued to target rebel forces, with assistance from the Syrian Air Force, leading to the successful recapture of critical strongholds in Arsal including the Technical Institute Building and Ras al-Serj hill; which had been occupied by the Islamist militants since the initial siege on August 2nd. The LAF had reportedly killed an IS commander and NF forces were beginning to retreat. Informal negotiations led to the release of six captured soldiers and policeman.
However, it was on August 7th, that the Sunni-backed Lebanese Committee of Muslim Scholars were able to communicate with the militants and brokered a twenty-four hour ceasefire on the agreement that the remaining IS fighters who had not withdrawn earlier with NF fighters, were given a clear passage back into the mountains or over the border to Syria. The deal also stated that Lebanese security personnel captured by the militants were to be released within twenty-four hours.
With assistance from Syrian military forces on the border, offensive militants were given free passage out of Arsal town. In exchange, only three soldiers were released. This left thirty-nine security personnel from the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), Internal Security Forces (ISF) and Police units, unaccounted for and hostage of either NF or IS. Both militants group withdrew and retreated, though it was unclear whether the rebels fled towards the Syrian border or into the surrounding mountain terrain.
Concluding the initial five day battle, it was reported that 60 militants, 50 civilians and 19 soldiers were killed. In addition, 19 - 24 Soldiers and 20 Policeman were captured (3 were confirmed released on August 7th) by IS or NF fighters and the injured casualty count reached beyond 400. It is important to note here that, these numbers represent the estimated casualties and hostage numbers immediately following the August 7th ceasefire. Casualties have since risen as the conflict is still ongoing.
- 2014 - 2017: ongoing clashes
Since 2014, armed clashes in the Arsal outskirts were ongoing. They often occurred between LAF and either IS or NF with the army shelling militants positions using heavy artillery, rockets and missiles. In fact, since August 7th, 2014, there has been over 350 separate incident reports of LAF engaging with hostile forces in the greater Baalbek (see Ras Baalbek timeline) region, more than half of which can be traced to Arsal.
Also, Hezbollah have been conducting similar operations against armed militants in the outskirts of Arsal, while clashes between militants belonging to IS and NF were just as frequent.
Besides the clashes, the Army often conducted raids in Arsal arresting suspects affiliated to the abovementioned militants groups.
- June 2017: Suicide attack and massive arrests
At the end of June 2017, the Army was targeted by five suicide bombings and a hand grenade attack during raids operation on Syrian refugees camps in Arsal. The first bomber blew himself up in front of an army patrol leaving three soldiers wounded in Nawar camp. A Syrian girl was also killed and two other refugees were wounded during the explosion. Later, three other terrorists detonated their explosive devices against the patrol without causing any injury. Similarly, during another LAF operation, in Qareiah camp, a terrorist detonated his explosive belt without causing any casualties among soldiers. However, a hand grenade attack was later launched against one of the patrols leaving four soldiers injured. These violent attacks on patrols didn’t stop the army who pursued its intensive raids operations among refugees camp arresting a number of suspects with terrorists affiliation. In total, more than 50 suspects were arrested during this day for ties with terrorist group while additional explosive devices ready to be detonated were dismantled. However, these massive arrests by LAF were also subject to critics among part of the public opinion as well as some human rights NGOs who were accusing the army of mistreating Syrian refugees after five of them had died in custody.
- July 2017: Ousting of Jabhat el Sham militants from Arsal outskirts
On the 20th of July, Hezbollah militants, backed by the Syrian Forces, launched an offensive against Jabhat el-Sham (previouly al-Nusra) positions in Arsal outskirts in order to expel them from the area. The purpose of this operation was to force the militants to surrender by laying down their weapons and leave Lebanese territory. After the first negotiations failed, Hezbollah launched a second attack heavily targeting terrorists positions and managed to take control over several Jabhat el-Sham positions. In the meantime, LAF deployed around the surrounding areas in order to prevent armed militants to approach the town of Arsal or nearby refugees settlements. After this attack, many militants decided to lay down their weapons and headed towards IS positions but also to refugees camps located in the surrounding area. Finally, on the 7th day of the offensive, a ceasefire agreement was concluded which included the release of captured Hezbollah fighters in exchange of the safely return to Syria of thousands of Jabhat el-Sham militants with their families.
Socio-economic impact of Arsal conflict.
While the physical conflict was an immediate security threat, it wasn’t the only danger for Arsal. In fact, economic erosion and an increasingly precarious social environment raised valid public and international concerns. Such insecurities developed when already scarce resources were strained with the accommodation of an influx of approximately 100,000 Syrian refugees who have ultimately became trapped in Arsal due to the inability to move beyond LAF borders into Lebanon. It is also important to point out that Arsal citizens have not been distinguished from Syrian populations in the implementation of security reforms. Many farmers and stone masons could no longer access their land in the outskirts, crippling local economic trade and with minimal external aid or state services. This has become a considerable factor in entrenching socio-economic strain and deepening social unrest.
The course of action (COA) decided on by the state and LAF forces is one of containment, depending heavily on military action and kinetic warfare tactics to secure the borders of Arsal and prevent further conflict spillover.
The COA came into fruition following the conclusion of the initial counteroffensive campaign in late 2014; notably, additional border watchtowers and seventeen new checkpoints were introduced to control access in/out of Arsal and its outskirts where militants were known to take refuge. A large scale LAF ground operation was deployed to the checkpoints, watchtowers and to any known smuggling routes between Lebanon and Syria. In 2015, containment measures were further increased in an attempt to restore security in Arsal; the LAF enforced an emergency measure in which travellers that seek to go to Arsal’s outskirts must first obtain an Army Intelligence permit. LAF security measures, particularly as they pertain to travel restriction policies, did not permit transportation of goods beyond two bags of bread per vehicle when travelling from Arsal town to the outskirts. Additionally, key roads have been blocked, further restricting access to private land or travelling in the Arsal region. Since the implementation of such measures, access in/out of Arsal was extremely limited, even for Arsal citizens who are not distinguished from their Syrian refugee counterparts, which has been met with opposition from multiple parties.
Additionally, the LAF ground operation engaged frequently in armed conflict with hostile forces in Arsal, both in the town and outskirts (see our Arsal timeline below to explore the ongoing clashes). In line with the containment doctrine, the state insists they are not in ‘participation’ with Hezbollah militants who occupy the area as they conduct their independent counteroffensive campaign. However, on many occasions, Hezbollah’s campaign has aided LAF objectives.
The initial conflict of Arsal was widely reported on nationally and across the Middle East but has not seen a matched response by the wider international media. Even so, this did not negate efforts from international state actors to assist Lebanon’s counteroffensive campaign to combat armed militants:
- Russia pledged to provide the LAF with six helicopters, 77 tanks, a million bullets and 37,000 shells of various calibers;
- Saudi Arabia provided a $1 billion grant, in addition to a $3 billion grant for French military aid; this grant has been suspended intermittently as Beirut fails to back Riyadh in their diplomatic relations with Iran.
- Qatar has supported Lebanon’s fight with soft power, and its appointment of a mediator tasked with negotiating the release of the servicemen. However, Qatari mediation was put to an end after its efforts to resolve the crisis failed in December 2014 when another hostage policeman was executed.
- Syrian officials have claimed to be willing to support Lebanese authorities and have assisted in various counter-offensive operations. The Syrian Air Force assist LAF ground operations by executing targeted air raids to push back militant front lines. This was especially crucial in the early stages of the initial counteroffensive campaign on August 4th.
- The U.S. granted emergency assistance in the form of munitions and ordnance. Additionally, Lebanon was provided with three U.S. helicopters worth $26 million to assist wider efforts to secure the Syrian border; In 2016, 50 armored vehicles, 40 artillery pieces and 50 grenade launchers were also delivered, worth $50 million. This was a part of a $220 million assistance package from the U.S. in 2016. Ongoing military training is also a part of this package.
- $29 million of British aid was granted to Lebanon to assist efforts to contain the Syrian spillover. Britain also committed to providing a $22 million long term border guard training program and a $6.5 million general training program for 5,000 Lebanese troops.
Arsal has also received attention from international aid agencies and non-government organisations. These efforts were continually hindered by the LAF security measures affecting the wider Arsal region, by geographic obstacles and an absence of state services in the town. There have however been several successful relief efforts by organisations such as Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) and Qatari Red Crescent (QRC) who have reached Arsal, delivering aid to thousands of Syrian refugees who are particularly affected during the winter period. Additionally, the LAF with assistance from U.S. Army Civil Affairs units have delivered aid to Syrian refugees and residents in need. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides aid rosters supplying food and shelter among other social services to refugees in Arsal, over 1500 Syrian families were not accounted for on the roster while Arsal citizens were in growing need of assistance.
Public movements, driven primarily by the families of those captured by militants, quickly developed in the wake of the initial siege. A long series of sit-ins were held almost immediately by family members of the hostages, uniting across confessional lines. However, the response of some families escalated when sit-ins did not lead to any releases; a warning message was made clear by such families when they took seventeen Syrian civilians hostage overnight on September 1st, 2014. Media reports stated the intent behind taking the civilians hostage was to exchange them for the captured soldiers, however, the Syrian hostages managed to break a door and escape the holding cell. Families continued to protest by closing the Dahr al-Baidar highway and moving demonstrations to Beirut City.
Public criticism and pleas have not been unusual given Arsal has experienced severe socio-economic troubles, primarily due to the securing of Arsal’s border and consequently the restriction of free movement in/out of the vicinity. Essentially this has barred aid, state services and the importation/exportation of goods. This combined with the high influx of Syrian refugees and the ongoing clashes between Lebanese forces, Hezbollah and Syrian regimes, has led to a volatile social-economic environment. Public pleas have often come in the form of public discussions between religious and political figureheads, urging the government to address the security concerns for the residents of Arsal. In 2014, protests were held by Syrian refugees who felt increasingly threatened by the increase of security which was being enforced by the Lebanese Army in Arsal. Furthermore, in late 2016, the Vice Head of the Islamic Shiite Supreme Council, Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan, the mayor of Arsal municipality, Bassel Hujairi, and a municipal delegation gathered together to discuss the security crisis in Bekaa valley, specifically as it relates to Arsal. In the same month, Arsal farmers staged protests in Beirut “demanding compensation after losing access to their cherry, peach, apple and apricot orchards on the outskirts of Arsal due to the local security situation,”. There are a multitude of issues that the public has raised concerns over in relation to Arsal, however many of them demand long term solutions that address the deeply-rooted, underlying factors which continued to be disregarded at present.
The Case of the Abducted Soldiers
Following the short term ceasefire agreement on August 7th, 2014, it was confirmed that the missing soldiers and serviceman had been captured by IS and NF fighters and would be held as prisoners of war/hostages until further negotiations took place. It was not until November 2014 that Army Commander Kahwagi confirmed that twenty seven of the hostages were Lebanese soldiers. This number was again revised and reduced to twenty six in the following weeks.
August 5th, 2014: Three hostage release by Al-Nusra
August 17th, 2014: Two hostages released by Al-Nusra
August 22nd, 2014: Muslim scholars withdraw as mediators.
August 28th, 2014: Ali Sayyed, a Lebanese soldier, is the first out of the group to be beheaded by ISIS militants.
August 30th, 2014: al-Nusra abductors release five Sunni servicemen, arguing that their fight was not against their sect.
August 31st, 2014: A ministerial crisis group was formed and held a series of meetings to follow the issue.
Early September, 2014: A Qatari delegation step in to aid in the negotiation process.
September 19th, 2014: al-Nusra execute an abducted soldier, Mohammed Hamiyeh. Hamiyeh was the first of the Nusra Front captives to be killed.
September - October, 2014: Families of abducted servicemen take hostage eleven Syrians before they manage to escape. Familial protests eventually on to Beirut.
November, 2014: An unofficial mediator enters negotiations - Mustafa Hujeir. Hujeir has known ties to NF and is a Sheikh in the Arsal region.
November, 2014: Families of the abducted serviceman call a halt to their protests following assurance from Lebanese Officials that negotiations and work on the release of the men was still in process.
December 5th, 2014: al-Nusra execute another prisoner, Ali Bazzal.
December 8th, 2014: Qatari mediators withdraw from their role in negotiations.
December 21st, 2014: A new mediator is appointed, Ahmed Fliti, the Deputy Mayor of the Municipality.
December 1st, 2015: 16 captives and the bodies of 2 deceased serviceman/soldiers released by Al-Nusra in exchange for 13 prisoners in a deal that was brokered by Qatari mediators.
December 2015: Speculated period of the killing of the remaining hostages.
February 16th, 2016: General Security arrested al-Nusra linked to two soldiers execution: Mohammed Hamieh and Ali Bazzal
August 27th: 2017: The remains of kidnapped soldiers bodies has been retrieved in Arsal after the announcement of their death
September 8th, 2017: This was proclaimed as a National mourning day.
September 9th, 2017: Former head of Arsal municipality Ali Hujeiri, is arrested on charges of being involved in the kidnapping of the soldiers.
While the release of the remaining Al-Nusra hostages was secured at the end of 2015, nine were still being held captive by IS. Families of the servicemen intermittently held demonstrations or on occasion met with officials, mediators or state representatives. In January 2017, it was announced that a new Lebanese mediator has entered negotiations with ISIS in addition to a mediator based in Rakka, Syria.
However, at the end of August 2017, the Army launched “Fajr el Jurd” offensive against IS in Ras Baalbeck and el-Qaa outskirts in order to expel them from Lebanon but also to know the fate of the kidnapped militaries. After a ceasefire was concluded in exchange of information about the missing soldiers, it appeared that they have been already killed by their captors. Afterwards, Lebanese authorities were able to locate and retrieve the remains of 9 bodies belonging to the hostages. It was speculated that they have been dead since 2015. The news came as a chock in the whole country , especially for the families of the kidnapped who had waited and hoped for the return of their abducted relatives. A National mourning day was proclaimed by the Lebanese government to pay tribute to the martyrs soldiers.
If Arsal outskirts appear to be cleared from terrorists position now, the Army continues to monitor operations in the area frequently launching raids, arresting suspects of terrorism, seizing weapons, as well as dismantling landmines and explosives left by the militants. For instance, after confession of one detainee, the LAF arrested Ali Hujeiri former head of Arsal municipality for being involved in the abduction of the 30 soldiers. Number of weapons were also seized during this operation.
[Last updated on December 2017]