By Riccardo Dugulin for Global Risk Insights
The border town of Arsal, located on the northeastern slopes of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, has become a focal point of the Islamic State (IS) expansionist agenda in Lebanon.
The city of about 10,000 residents is at the front stage of Lebanese and regional security concerns given the power play involving Sunni extremists, pro-Assad forces and Lebanese military units that has taken place along the strategic mountainous border separating Lebanon from Syrian territory.
After the heavy involvement of Hezbollah in the battle of Qusayr in May 2013 Sunni extremist insurgent groups began their expansion in Lebanon.
In fact, prior to that, Lebanese areas between Hermel and Baalbek were mainly used as safe havens by Syrian militants and periodically targeted by Syrian army airstrikes, artillery strikes and small infantry operations.
The August 2014 offensive in the Arsal region came as a game changer. In the first seven days of the month, a large force comprising of al-Nusra Front militants as well as Islamic State (IS) fighters attacked Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) checkpoints in the area and stormed the Arsal police station.
The LAF responded with a major ground operation that led to the withdrawal of Islamist insurgents. The fighting marked the first major cross-border offensive in the region and the clearest strategic cooperation between al-Nusra Front and IS.
Since then, Sunni extremist militants have maintained control of the high-grounds overlooking the town of Arsal and conduct periodic attacks against the LAF with rocket and mortar strikes as well as with roadside improvised explosive device (RIED) attacks in in the Laboue and Ras Baalbek areas.
LAF units have been heavily deployed around Arsal as part of a strategic security plan enacted by the Lebanese authorities in late 2014.
However, the town has progressively fallen under the influence of IS fighters. Militants have set up parallel judicial structures aimed at challenging state authority and imposing their own ideology.
The process of imposing IS control in the city also manifests through intimidation and violence. Assassinations, kidnappings and/or torture of residents cooperating with state authorities, are terrorizing and tactical tools to get locals to submit to IS.
In late March 2015, reports revealed that IS was expanding their control over Arsal town, including the ability to conduct punitive operations against the local population virtually unchallenged by the LAF.
At this point, a direct confrontation pitting the LAF against IS and its partners is unlikely to unfold in the immediate-term.
Lebanese officials are expected to maintain a strategy in which military units are used to block smuggling routes between Syria and Lebanon and limit the risk of IS expansion outside of the Arsal area.
In early April, airborne units have been deployed in hills overlooking Ras Baalbek in an attempt to cut potential supply routes linking Syria to Arsal.
This strategy may block the current small- to medium-scale incursions made by Sunni extremist insurgents in northeastern Lebanon but it does not provide a comprehensive security response to the repeated calls issued by IS leadership to carry out a major offensive in Arsal district.
In fact, with the progressive erosion of state authority in the border town, IS forces are likely to engage in a war of attrition aimed at weakening the LAF fighting power.
This strategy is aimed at blocking the LAF in mountainous areas along the border while pushing army units to capacity. This in turn would facilitate the passage of small militant groups inside Lebanon with the objective of carrying out terrorist attacks and inciting sectarian strife.
The current situation in the Arsal border area is problematic as it is a potential trigger for further insecurity in eastern Lebanon. In fact, away from the Sunni-majority areas of the Arsal region, large Shiite strongholds are present in Hermel and Baalbek.
Aside from LAF presence, these areas are home to major Hezbollah strategic positions as well as strong Shiite clans and influential families. The latter are (at times) heavily armed and implicated in the smuggling of narcotics.
Any attempt by IS fighters to penetrate deeper into areas of the Bekaa Valley may have far-reaching political ramifications given the fact that influential clans in the Baalbek area have networks and operations in Tripoli and Beirut.