Lebanese Army Laying Siege to Fighters in the Eastern Hills Ahead of ‘Spring War’

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A Lebanese army unit on patrol in Ersal on August 4, 2014. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Friday, February 13, 2015

Negotiations to release the Lebanese soldiers being held prisoner in the hills of Ersal are ongoing and the issue is expected to see some progress. On the other hand, the army has laid siege to the fighters in the hills in preparation for a war that seems inevitable this spring in the hills of Ersal and Qalamoun.

The road between Ersal and its hills is no longer open to fighters and passers-by. The harsh weather conditions are not the only factor impeding their movement. The lax attitude and willful blindness that were prevalent and which facilitated the fighters’ movement to and from Ersal have ended. The Ersal front has not subsided in the past six weeks, as the army almost daily shells border crossings that fighters sneak across and even those they might sneak across.

All this is happening in the shadow of an inevitable upcoming war expected to break out in the area in early spring at the latest, keeping in mind that it is connected to Lebanese-Syrian coordination which will definitely hasten it. Until then, about 5,000 Lebanese soldiers have been deployed all along the Ersal front facing 2,000 fighters at most — according to security estimates — holed up in the hills. Security sources denied rumors about reinforcements and fighters joining the Qalamoun front through the Syrian Bureij area which the Syrian army lays siege to.

According to sources, the main reason behind this change is the plan to isolate Ersal from its hills which succeeded to a large degree. Information indicates that the decision taken by the army leadership — which was informed by local and international political changes — gave the army more leeway to deal with breaches along the Bekaa front. This was reinforced by the movement of military formations and military transfers in the area. Two months ago, Brigadier General Mohammed Hassan succeeded Brigadier General Abdel Karim Hashem in the leadership of the Eighth Brigade, the latter was transferred for reasons that are still unknown. In conjunction with the change in leadership, the army tightened its grip on Ersal’s entrances and exits and succeeded in catching two booby-trapped cars, arresting a number of wanted members from al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and killing important leaders in both groups. The latest example was shooting four leaders as they tried to sneak into town at night, which led the fighters’ attack on the army position of Talet al-Hamra in the hills of Ras Baalbek last month.

Sources reveal that shelling operations are aimed at fighter concentrations in the hills and stress that they are “not random, but rather based on information about the fighters’ movement and clustering.” This was “enabled by the united international decision to fight terrorism,” according the same source.

All of this tightened the noose on the fighters. It is true Ersal was not completely cut off from its hills but these changes greatly reduced the supplies that reached the fighters. According to information, this new reality accelerated the negotiations, which are ongoing with the kidnapping parties, in the case of the imprisoned soldiers. Sources said negotiations with ISIS are going more smoothly than those with al-Nusra, which are being handled under the table by Mustafa al-Hujairi aka Abu Takiyeh. According to information, negotiations with ISIS through the intermediary M.B. are advancing as the kidnappers have scaled down their demands and are going to show good will in this issue by offering to release prisoners in exchange for facilitating the entry of food supplies.

In other news, Al-Akhbar learned that ISIS appointed a new leader in Qalamoun known as Abu Osama al-Banyasi and Abu Aisha al-Banyasi to succeed Abu al-Huda al-Homsi. According to information, the spokesperson of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades — Hussein bin Ali Battalion, Sheikh Siraj Eddine Zureikat, moved recently from al-Zabadani mountains to the Qalamoun hills.

Follow Radwan Mortada on Twitter: @radwanmortada

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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