WASHINGTON – Northern Lebanon could fall into the hands of the Islamic jihadist army ISIS as battles between Sunni jihadist groups and the Lebanese army in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli portend even greater violence in coming weeks.
“The northern part of the country could explode in the next several weeks,” one Lebanese source who is closely monitoring developments told WND.
ISIS, which already has proclaimed large portions of Syria and Iraq as part of its Islamic “caliphate,” has stated it aims to take over all of the Levant, which not only would include Lebanon but all of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Iraq, portions of southern Turkey and Israel.
Sources tell WND that as winter approaches, it is possible for a two-pronged attack in coming weeks from the north and from the Qalamoun mountain region in Syria. The offensive would place a combination of jihadist fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front and ISIS in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in the heart of the country.
As winter approaches, sources say the ISIS jihadists in the Qalamoun Mountains near the Lebanese border will want to make their move to avoid becoming stranded.
The Bekaa Valley region, however, is controlled mainly by Shiites who are well-armed but see an increasing flow of Syrian refugees who could take up arms with the jihadist militants.
Currently, there are close to 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon living in squalid conditions in isolated camps with lack of fresh water and exposure to disease.
Lebanon itself has held the refugees at arm’s length and now is refusing to take on any more, even though one of main entry points from Syria into Lebanon, the Masnaa crossing, is teaming daily with refugees who want to escape the civil war.
Sources say the conditions add to the desperation of refugees who see no alternative to their current plight, making them susceptible to ISIS recruiting efforts, especially among the young people.
The informed sources say concern is mounting that the northern portion of the country that encompasses Tripoli could be swallowed into the ISIS caliphate as the Lebanese army – along with the help of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah – engage ISIS and al-Nusra fighters who also are aligned with another extreme Sunni jihadist group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.
Both al-Nusra and ISIS have taken captive some 20 Lebanese army soldiers and are using them as leverage. Each group, however, has executed a captured soldier to press demands for the release of captured jihadists who are in a prison in Beirut.
“If more Lebanese army troops are killed, it will definitely bring on an all-out Sunni-Shiite war,” one source told WND.
He indicated that Hezbollah fighters then will launch an all-out attack on Sunni strongholds as well as the Syrian refugee camps.
Another source said the strategy of ISIS and al-Nusra is to put the Lebanese army more into an urban warfare environment, increasing the chances of collateral damage to civilians. The objective is to portray the army and its Hezbollah ally as hostile to Sunnis.
To prepare for luring the Lebanese army into urban warfare, sources say ISIS and al-Nusra fighters have deployed themselves near army positions. Lebanese army checkpoints already have been attacked. Mosques in many of the Sunni-controlled towns are said to be supplied with arms.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Sunni jihadist fighters have taken on the Lebanese army.
Beginning in May 2007, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, the ISF, confronted the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Islam at the Nahr al-Bared Sunni Palestinian camp a few miles from the Lebanese city of Tripoli.
For some three months, the ISF shelled the camp, with most of the inhabitants fleeing to nearby Palestinian refugee camps in Tripoli, Beirut and Saida, or Sidon.
Nahr al-Bared is the home of some 30,000 displaced Palestinians. Fighters of Fatah al-Islam allegedly had robbed a bank and had hidden out at the Palestinian camp, which like many similar camps are overpopulated. They have a very high rate of unemployment and are home to many jihadist groups, including al-Nusra, Abdullah Azzam Brigades and ISIS.
Sources tell WND that ISIS already may have some 40 cells spread out in Sunni-dominated regions of Lebanon.
The jihadist group seeks to protect the Sunni areas from the Shiite Hezbollah, which has been sending its own fighters into Syria to help prop up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Shiite-Alawite allied with Shiite Iran.
Declaration of war
Earlier this year, al-Nusra had “declared war” on the Lebanese army, which had manned checkpoints in Syria and accused the army of permitting Hezbollah fighters to pass to fight alongside the Syrian army.
Now, the Sunni jihadist groups equate the Lebanese army with Hezbollah in seeking to extend its influence in Lebanon.
In light of the uptick in attacks on the Lebanese army, the United States has begun to rush weapons and ammunition, among other logistical support.
Sources tell WND, however, that much of the logistical support destined for the army is winding up in the hands of Hezbollah. WND was unable to confirm the development independently.
There remains concern over the Lebanese army confronting al-Nusra and ISIS fighters who resort to guerrilla warfare in the face of a standing army. Counter-insurgency tactics generally are effective against a standing army that isn’t trained in such tactics.