JURUD ARSAL, Lebanon (AFP) — Surveying the rocky no-man’s land on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, Hezbollah fighters on Wednesday recalled the “difficult” battle they fought to recapture much of the terrain from militants.
The Lebanese Shiite movement has waged a five-day offensive across the scraggy landscape known as Jurud Arsal to oust what it says are ex-Al-Qaeda Syrian jihadists.
The group’s head Hassan Nasrallah praised his fighters late Wednesday, saying they were facing “a great military victory” with the enemy holed up in a pocket of territory.
Hours earlier, field commanders had led journalists on a guided tour of positions overlooking the shrinking enclave, where they said just around 200 fighters were surrounded.
Despite plumes of black smoke in the distance, the fighters appeared relaxed after several days of clashes, grinning in the blistering heat.
“Jurud Arsal’s topography is tough and the battle against al-Nusra Front here was difficult,” said a Hezbollah commander, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Al-Nusra was entrenched in its hilltops and valleys, turning these areas into combat facilities that even airplanes couldn’t reach.”
Al-Nusra was Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch before it broke off ties and rebranded as Fateh al-Sham Front last year.
Hezbollah has fought the group in Syria since intervening in support of the Damascus government in 2013.
Syrian air strikes
Jurud Arsal — a mountainous area around the Lebanese border town of Arsal — is mostly barren, save for some orchards of cherry and apricot trees that ripened long ago without being picked.
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in and around the town, some in camps.
But security has long been a concern, with Lebanese security forces battling jihadists there in 2014.
On Wednesday, Lebanon’s flag had been planted next to the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah in Jurud Arsal.
Syrian warplanes have backed the push with regular air strikes from their side of the frontier.
A Syrian army colonel accompanied by Hezbollah fighters could be seen atop a tank Wednesday in the porous border area.
Lebanon’s army has not officially declared its participation in the operation, but has shelled “terrorists” in the area.
Hezbollah fighters on Wednesday said they had helped protect “the Lebanese army’s back”.
“We’re shouldering the danger for Lebanon — the danger of explosions and terrorist cells,” the commander said.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has intensified pre-existing divides among Lebanese political parties, but the assault in Jurud Arsal has appeared less controversial.
In a televised speech on Wednesday, Nasrallah said his group was willing to hand over the territory they had secured to Lebanese troops.
‘Battlefield or talks’
Nasrallah also said “serious” negotiations were taking place to secure a withdrawal of Al-Nusra militants from Jurud Arsal.
“There are two paths: the battlefield and the negotiations. Both are open,” he said, adding that “an official Lebanese entity” was mediating.
The Hezbollah field commander told journalists earlier in the day that the battle in Arsal “is not over yet”.
“Nusra has an ideology and its fighters are tough. But we too are strong and have an ideology, even if it’s a different one,” he said.
Extreme Sunni militant groups such as Al-Qaeda consider Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority of Hezbollah’s members and supporters, as apostates.
Since its offensive began, Hezbollah has buried around 20 of its fighters and says around 120 enemy combatants have been killed.
Fighters said they were expecting the next phase of the battle to be against the Islamic State group, which controls swathes of territory in Jurud Arsal and around two neighboring border towns.
“It won’t be a difficult task. Its fighters are only a few hundred and spread out in this vast territory,” the commander said confidently.