By Nasser Charara
A number of flashpoints litter Lebanon. Reports of armed groups backed by foreign intelligence services note that they seek a climate that would drag Hezbollah into a sectarian war. Although Hezbollah is keen on showing patience and restraint – at least politically – it is ready to suppress them, if necessary, militarily.
The armed groups in Tripoli, Saida, and the Tariq al-Jdideh district of Beirut all have similar methods and composition, which could mean that they are controlled by a single entity. In the aftermath of the Saida battles between the Lebanese Army and Ahmad al-Assir’s militants, certain conclusions can be drawn from these groups’ capabilities to withstand a sweeping military operation.
Saida and Salafi Cleric Ahmad al-Assir
Last week, Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir tested his military capabilities on the ground. Around 120 of Assir’s gunmen deployed throughout the city. There were also reports that al-Jamaa al-Islamiya took part in the ensuing clashes, but Assir failed to attract the support of groups in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
For two hours, Assir’s fighters fired in the air and at supposed Hezbollah buildings. But after some time, Assir’s groups received warning shots from heavy machine guns and two B-10 shells, throwing Assir’s militants – and him personally – into disarray.
This did not stop Assir’s men from crossing a red line by attacking a Lebanese Army checkpoint on Sunday, June 23, killing a number of soldiers and prompting a decisive reaction from the military, which has continued into today.
In the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, for example, there are two red lines that the militants will not be allowed to cross: entering Jabal Mohsen, which is likely to lead to a Syrian army intervention; and threatening the strongholds of Suleiman Franjieh.
The facts on the ground indicate that the main function of Tripoli militants is nothing more than to stir up trouble. For instance, the fighters led by Salafi cleric Hussam al-Sabbagh in Bab al-Tabbaneh do not number more than 400. Other groups include Jund Allah, a 110-strong group led by Sheikh Kanaan Naji, and Saad al-Masri’s group of 40 militants.
In all the battles between Jabal Mohsen and its surroundings, the militants have only tried once to storm a building at the entrance of Jabal Mohsen. However, the Arab Democratic Party quickly responded with dozens of shells of intermediate caliber, forcing the attackers to retreat.
Meanwhile, whether in Tripoli or other flashpoints, Syrian refugees are a factor in the calculations. Indeed, a segment of the refugee population has become the equivalent of reserve forces for the armed groups.
The bottom line is that eradicating the militants from Tripoli would not be impossible if they were to cross any red lines. Envisaging such a scenario necessitates learning the lessons of the battle of Qusayr, where Hezbollah, for the first time in its history, carried out a major offensive.
Qusayr’s military implications are clear. They demonstrate that Hezbollah has accrued extensive abilities in coordinating the operations of various military formations, such as ground support and artillery; command over the movement of forces in an area nearly half the size as northern Lebanon; and can utilize its military intelligence to change the circumstances of battle.
Militants in the Tariq al-Jdideh neighborhood of Beirut are trying to establish a demarcation line with the Shia neighborhoods, particularly the area of Shiyah.
The number of militants in Tariq al-Jdideh barely numbers a thousand. They include Salafi fighters of Palestinian and Syrian nationalities, as well as other local fighters. The nearby Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila also funnel fighters to the area, as is the case with the 40-member group led by Abu Khamis al-Beiruti.
These militants do not have adequate combat training. This assessment was put to the test when Tariq al-Jdideh’s fighters attacked the Arab Movement Party headquarters nearly a year ago. Back then, the party’s offices fell as a result of deception alone.
In truth, it would have been possible to rescue the headquarters if a coordinated force from outside the area had intervened, while the cost of eradicating the Tariq al-Jdideh flashpoint would not have exceeded, at worst, 20 casualties.
The militant groups stationed in Nehme along the coastal road to Khaldeh do not number more than 200 fighters. These militants’ purpose is to block the coastal road between Beirut and Saida in times of unrest. Another possible role is to break into the tunnels of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) holed up in the hills in Nehme.
In fact, nearly a week ago, a fire was deliberately started near the entrance of the tunnels, causing planted mines to explode.
A military reading of the above-mentioned flashpoints suggests the following conclusions:
– The common feature among all the militants is the lack of organization and the absence of professional training.
– The intelligence services backing the militants have only invested in Syrian refugees in a limited fashion. As soon as many of these refugees arrive in Lebanon, they are given money to purchase mobile phones and laptops. At best, this would only allow them to communicate with the opposition coordination committees on social media platforms, and is of no use in building up any significant militant grouping.
– In any simulation of a hypothetical war, should red lines be crossed in Tripoli or Saida, learning from the Qusayr experience will be vital.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.