ISIS to launch battle for Lebanese town of Ersal

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A refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Ersal on the border with Syria. AFP/Maya Hautefeuille

Published Thursday, December 18, 2014

ISIS has waged a war on Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in the Qalamoun area. Sources from both parties have said that the next target of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is none other than the Lebanese town of Ersal.

A "civil war" has erupted between fighters of the Syrian opposition in the outskirts of Qalamoun, which is adjacent to the occupied outskirts of Ersal. ISIS started a battle to wipe out the remaining FSA militants in Qalamoun, both in the western hilltops (adjacent to the Lebanese borders) and the eastern hilltops (which link the Damascus countryside, Homs, and the gateway to the semi-arid rangelands of al-Badiya).

ISIS militants have been waiting for military reinforcements, which they received from Homs in the past three days – prior to the arrival of three ISIS "Sharia judges,” most notably Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi. According to sources among the militants, the envoys conveyed orders to ISIS fighters to obtain a pledge of allegiance to ISIS’ emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from the FSA-affiliated groups, and those who reject the order would have chosen to engage in battle.

Skirmishes took place in the past few days before heavy fighting broke out "on all fronts in the western and eastern Qalamoun areas" on Wednesday. The clashes spread to smuggler crossings between the hills of Ersal and Qalamoun. While al-Nusra Front stood on the sidelines, ISIS fighters managed to seize control of the headquarters of the “al-Qusayr Commando Brigade” and arrest its leader Uraba Idris, who was later executed for "selling out al-Qusayr and Yabrud to Hezbollah."

Idris had fought the Syrian army in Baba Amr in Homs, Qusayr, and the villages of Qalamoun. According to Syrian fighters, his group was specialized in assassinating Syrian officers. ISIS fighters confiscated the brigade's arms stock, which the latter seized from Syrian army warehouses near the town of Mahin in the autumn of 2013.

It is not clear whether al-Nusra Front will remain neutral. Its emir in Qalamoun, Abu Malik al-Talli, has signed a non-confrontation agreement with ISIS “jurists.” Sources close to ISIS and FSA said that ISIS’ next target, after wiping out the "non-jihadi" local groups, will be the Lebanese town of Ersal, of which it will try to regain control.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army Intelligence services made a significant arrest on the Lebanese side of the border a week ago. According to available information, they managed to capture a senior leader in the Abdullah Azzam Brigades named Mahmoud A. in a well-planned ambush. According to security sources, the captive, who hails from the town of Majdal Anjal, is as important as the detainee Naim Abbas, adding that he confessed to having transported the suicide bombers involved in the Dahr al-Baidar and Tayouneh explosions last June. The sources noted that Mahmoud A. was the right-hand man of Sheikh Siraj-Uddin Zureiqat, spokesman for the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, and was responsible for providing accommodation to Suja al-Dulaimi. According to the sources, he also confessed to transporting fighters between Majdal Anjar, Ersal, Tripoli, and Shebaa, and delivering money to suspect Shadi al-Mawlawi several times.

On the other hand, no significant progress has been made in the negotiations to release the Lebanese army soldiers held in Ersal, except for the breakthrough made by the new mediator Sheikh Wissam al-Masri, who met on Wednesday with ISIS officials in Qalamoun.

Although news later came out denying that a meeting took place, security sources confirmed to Al-Akhbar that al-Masri has not been endorsed by the Lebanese state yet, but was allowed to head to Ersal in the hope of achieving something where others have failed. According to sources, Masri's primary goal is to stop the execution of soldiers after the threat made by ISIS, and resume negotiations at a later stage.


This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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