WASHINGTON – Iran intends to provide counter-terrorism assistance to Lebanon as it comes under increasing attack from fighters of the Sunni Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Lebanese army forces are facing attacks in the northern part of the country as a prelude to the Islamic State’s intention to take over not only Lebanon but the entire Levant.
Islamic State fighters recently attacked the northern Lebanese town of Arsal and took it over at one point. A 24-hour cease-fire was brokered in which the Islamic State was to retreat to nearby mountains and release captured Lebanese army personnel in exchange for assurance that Syrian refugees in the town would be safe from any “revenge” attacks.
Lebanese authorities fear an increasing effort by the Islamic State to attack the country and bring it under its announced caliphate, which already includes eastern Syria and a large swath of neighboring western and central Iraq. Under the caliphate, all Muslims, principally Sunnis, would be subject to a strict form of Islamic law, or Shariah.
However, many Sunni groups that initially have helped the Islamic State advance in Iraq have begun to resist. There even have had open conflicts with the Islamic State, indicating it may have military prowess but little competence in governance.
Iran’s offer of assistance comes as Lebanese sources tell WND the Lebanese army does not have enough ammunition on hand to battle Islamic State jihadists, who are known to number more than 10,000.
“Tehran and Beirut enjoy good and pervasive relations,” according to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyheh Afham. “Following the activation of terrorist cells in the region, a part of which threatened Lebanon’s internal security, we held some talks with the Lebanese officials, and now in case the Lebanese officials raise any demand for a campaign against terrorists, Iran will be ready to help them in this ground in a bid to protect Lebanon’s internal unity,” she said.
Shiite Iran is officially regarded as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. But Tehran’s offer of counter-terrorism aid comes as the al-Qaida-splinter group Islamic State and the Sunni al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra threaten the Lebanese army.
Both the Islamic State and al-Nusra have declared war against the Lebanese army, which they claim has assisted the Shiite Iranian-backed Hezbollah group that has de facto control over the government of Lebanon.
In particular, the Sunni jihadists say the army has allowed Hezbollah fighters through checkpoints to assist the Syrian army against Syrian opposition forces, which are comprised mainly of Sunni jihadist fighters. Hezbollah contends that it is providing the assistance to maintain the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Shiite-Alawite who is closely allied with Iran.
Like Iran, the State Department has designated Hezbollah, the “Party of Allah,” as a terrorist group. Hezbollah regards itself as the resistance against Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
There are concerns inside Lebanon that Islamic State, which just appointed a Palestinian as its “emir” in Lebanon, could begin all-out hostilities from the Palestinian camps, which officially house 200,000 Palestinians. However, the actual number of Palestinians in Lebanon is double that figure.
Lebanese security sources say the Islamic State and al-Nusra have established a joint operations room to manage battles and deploy fighters inside Lebanon, even though they have been at odds with each other, especially in Syria, where fighters of the two groups have clashed.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State, had sought to bring al-Nusra in Syria, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, under his group. But because of the Islamic State’s reputation for extreme brutality, including beheadings, crucifixions, amputations and killing of fellow Sunnis, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disassociated his group.
In addition to Sunni Palestinians, many of whom are sympathetic to the Islamic State, al-Nusra and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades also operate in Lebanon, primarily in Sunni-controlled areas of the country and at the Palestinian camps, principally Ein el-Hilweh near Saida, or Sidon, just south of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.
For Iran, Lebanon is essential to maintain its embattled Shiite Crescent, which includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is at odds with Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has been funding Sunni jihadist groups in an effort to topple the Assad government, which governs a predominantly Sunni country.
Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Sunni Islam, has become concerned about Shiite Iran’s efforts to extend its influence over the Sunni Gulf Arab countries. However, Saudi Arabia, a monarchy like all of the other Sunni-controlled Arab countries, finds itself now being threatened by the Islamic State, which has vowed to take back Islam’s most holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both located in Saudi Arabia.