Ras Baalbeck Clashes (starting December 2, 2014)

Background

Ras Baalbek, a town located near the Syrian border in Northeast Lebanon, has a population of around 15,000, 1,500 of whom are Syrian refugees. The area has witnessed ongoing clashes with militants operating in the mountains around the town since the spring of 2014. However, it is unknown exactly how long the militants have been active in the area for. In August 2015, the President of Ras Baalbek’s Municipal Council, Hisham al-Arja, stated that 150 square kilometres of the village’s territory had been occupied for over two years. Importantly, Ras Baalbek is close to Arsal and el-Qaa, both of which have also seen fighting between militants and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) since 2014.

Whilst it was not clear at the start of the conflict who the militants fighting in Ras Baalbek were affiliated with, it later appeared that they were members of the Islamic State. Many of the militants in Ras Baalbek seemed to have arrived after being pushed out of Syria’s Qalamoun by Hezbollah and the Syrian army in the spring of 2014. Since then, the presence of the militants have had a serious effect on the locals’ economy, with many farmers unable to access their crops due to the violence. According to Rifaat Nasrallah, the leader of the village’s resistance group, some militants appeared to have arrived in the town with the refugees. Many Syrian refugees have entered the area but only Syrians with relatives who have previously worked in the town are able to  stay there. Furthermore, tent camps are forbidden around the town and the 8pm to 6am curfew, which was imposed on Syrian refugees by the Baalbek-Hermel governor after the el-Qaa bombings in June 2016, appears to still be in place.

Ras Baalbek’s location is particularly important as it is part of a road network which acts as a crucial supply route across the border into Syria. Ras Baalbek is thus a potentially strategic location to aid IS’s expansion. Whilst sources from inside the Free Syrian Army claimed that the militants’ activity was spontaneous and not part of a plan, the conflict in the border region has since evolved and escalated into a struggle between IS and the alliance of the LAF and Hezbollah. In addition to this struggle, battles frequently occurred between IS and Jabhat al-Sham (previously al-Nusra), which had stronghold in Arsal. The two groups’ territorial disputes means that whilst the conflict in Ras Baalbek had previously been separate from that in Arsal [see our Arsal timeline], the two conflicts are closely linked, suggesting that IS’s presence in the area could indeed have been strategic.

 

Actors

Hezbollah: Hezbollah is active in defending the area and is working together with the LAF and local residents. In general, their support has been well received and the alliance is effective. The group has a string of mountain-top outposts from which it targets IS positions using artillery strikes and missiles. Their involvement in the conflict is seen to be twofold; it is in line with their general stance on the conflict in Syria, and it enables them to ensure their own border network security and protect nearby villages. Hezbollah wanted to remove IS’s presence from Lebanon and ensured that the group did not expand its territory, especially to nearby Hezbollah strongholds, such as Hermel.  

The LAF: The LAF are working in coordination with Hezbollah and the residents’ patrols. They have multiple posts in the area and used to conduct regular, almost daily, artillery strikes on IS positions.

Foreign Actors: Various foreign actors, such as the UK and the US, have provided training and support for the LAF and the fight against the militants. A team of British ex-soldiers and engineers have reportedly constructed defensive watchtowers on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek. The UK also pledged $28.3 million to train Lebanese troops. Similarly, the US provided the LAF with additional weaponry, as well as $120 million worth of training and equipment.  

Lebanese Civilians: Residents of Ras Baalbek are also armed and conducting patrols to aid army intelligence. They undertake reconnaissance missions for the Lebanese army during the day, and perform patrols in the surrounding area at night. These patrols are in coordination with Hezbollah and LAF troops and have been effective.

Militants: The militants in and around the Ras Baalbek area were affiliated to IS. Many of the militants in Ras Baalbek seem to have arrived after being pushed out of Syria’s Qalamoun by Hezbollah and the Syrian army in the spring of 2014.

 

Summary of Conflict outbreaks

Whilst militants have been present in the Ras Baalbek area since the spring of 2014, the catalyst for the conflict was the kidnapping of 10 workers from a quarry on the town’s outskirts in June 2014. It is not clear who carried out the kidnapping, some sources claim it was al-Nusra Front (known today as Jabhat el-Sham), while others believe the kidnappers were affiliated with IS, yet it has also been claimed that they were not linked to any group in particular. However, it is clear that security measures in the area were increased following the incident. LAF troops conducted raids in search of potential terror suspects, whilst fighting between Hezbollah and militants on the outskirts of the town resulted in 17 deaths and injuries in September 2014. Violence between the Hezbollah-LAF alliance and the militants continued during the following months, culminating in the death of 6 LAF soldiers after a militant ambush in December 2014. A month later, 8 members of the LAF were killed in a battle with IS militants on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek. Further violence and arrests occurred over the following months in response to these attacks, with the LAF continued shelling militant positions on a daily basis.

In June 2015, Hezbollah resisted an attack by IS militants that left 8 Hezbollah fighters and 50 militants dead. By July, Hezbollah and the LAF were reported to have taken two thirds of the border region back from the militants, leaving them predominantly in the northern Qalamoun, on the eastern outskirts of Arsal and Ras Baalbek. However, given the president of Ras Baalbek’s municipal council’s claim in August that 150 square kilometres of the village’s territory had been occupied for over 2 years, this information is perhaps inaccurate, or at least still leaves a vast amount of territory inaccessible to the locals. After July 2015, the following months witnessed a period of relative calm.

However, the conflict was reignited in October 2015 by the LAF who began targeting militant positions with machine guns and artillery on a near-daily basis, potentially as a result of receiving foreign aid. The conflict also evolved into a fight between rival militant groups, with IS based in and around Ras Baalbek and the Nusra Front (now known as Jabhat el-Sham), who operated in and around Arsal. In March 2016, 5 IS militants and a LAF soldier were killed as a result of LAF strikes on an IS base on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek. Hezbollah responded by affirming their alliance with the LAF and shelling militant posts on a regular basis for the following months, resulting in a significant but unknown number of casualties on both sides.

 

June 2016 El-Qaa Bombings

Two waves of suicide bombings occurred in the city of el-Qaa on 27th June, 2016, starting at 4am and continuing until 11pm. Each wave involved 4 suicide bombers connected to IS, and in total 9 people were killed whilst 32 were injured (see our infographic here).

The first wave was started by a member of IS who exchanged fire with an el-Qaa resident, and then threw a hand grenade to draw people to the scene. Once a crowd had gathered, he detonated himself. Shortly afterwards, 3 suicide bombers detonated their explosives on a road adjacent to the first incident. At around 2pm, the LAF responded by shelling militant posts on the outskirts of el-Qaa and Ras Baalbek. Later that evening at around 11pm, another suicide attacker threw a hand grenade before detonating his suicide belt outside a church where funeral preparations for the victims of the earlier attacks were taking place. A second attacker arrived soon afterwards and detonated himself once a crowd had been drawn in response to the previous attack. At the same time, two other attackers attempted to target Lebanese soldiers, but they detonated their belts without any casualties.

In response to the el-Qaa bombings, the state responded by increasing raids across the country targeting terrorist activity. This crackdown on Syrian refugees within the country, as well as on Lebanese and other civilians suspected of links to a terrorist organisation, led to 42 raids in the month of July and 32 raids in the month of August (Read more about this in our Conflict Analysis Bulletin). In one recorded incident, an LAF patrol in Bebnine Camp resulted in the arrest of 124 Syrians for entering Lebanon illegally and the seizure of 44 motorbikes. In another raid in Baalbek, the army arrested 103 Syrians for not having official papers. As such, and according to Lebanon Support’s mapping of conflict incidents, many of the raids conducted at Syrian refugee encampments were discriminatory in nature as they targeted Syrians without due suspicion of terrorism. These waves of suicide bombings and the subsequent raids led to the escalation of LAF and Hezbollah attacks on militant bases around Ras Baalbek.

In fact, both the LAF and Hezbollah intensified their targeting of militants positions after the el-Qaa bombings, shortly before a Hezbollah leader described the situation along the Lebanon-Syria border as ‘serious’ in July. In August 2016, the LAF targeted various militant posts along the border with 30 bombs, resulting in the death of at least 5 militants. Hezbollah and LAF attacks on the militants continued, whilst rival militant groups were involved in fierce territorial clashes with each other, resulting in Jabhat al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front, taking over 2 IS positions in October 2016.

This fighting were not only threatening the lives of villagers, but also severely impacted their livelihoods. The access to their farmland has been extremely restricted and the presence of Syrian refugees implicated more competition for resources. Together, all of these factors lead to increasing destabilisation in the Ras Baalbek area.

 

August 2017: ousting of IS militants from Ras Baalbeck

Although the conflicts in Ras Baalbeck were ongoing since 2014, it is not until  August  2017 that an offensive was officially launched against the armed militants in order to expel them from Lebanese territory and seize back occupied territories. In fact, this operation called “Fajr el-Jurd (Down of the outskirts) started on the 19th of August and lasted for 10 days. The Army led the attack against IS militants in Ras Baalbeck and el-Qaa outskirts by shelling their positions with heavy artillery, missiles and rockets while heavily deploying around the area and liberating former occupied territories. (Read more about the LAF operation against IS here).From a geopolitical perspective, this battle against IS coincided with parallel  attacks led by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army in Qalamoun, on the Syrian side. It  also came few weeks after the withdrawal of Jabhat el-Sham (previously al-Nusra) from Arsal outskirts after Hezbollah has led a similar attack against these militants.

The battle ended 10 days later after a cease-fire was concluded in exchange of information about the fate of the abducted soldiers during 2014 Arsal clashes.

Although the LAF was able to oust IS from the region and seize control over their positions, the announcement of the death of the 9 remaining hostage soldiers who have been killed by their captors, has tainted the apparent victory of the Army over the militants group.

Currently, the LAF continues its ground operation in the area by frequently conducting raids, arresting suspects of affiliation with the Jihadi militants, seizing weapons but also dismantling explosive devices and landmines left by the group.  

[Article last updated in December 2017]