it was short-lived. During five days of fierce fighting, the army
wrested back control. In the end, 17 soldiers, dozens of militants and
at least 42 civilians were dead. The
defeated fighters were pushed out, but they didn’t go far. Thousands of
them dug into the outskirts of town, taking refuge in the caves and
natural defences of the mountains between here and the Syrian border. The
battle came with another cost: the jihadists kidnapped 29 Lebanese
police officers and soldiers on their way out. Four have since been
executed; several are still being held. Last February, then-foreign affairs minister
Stéphane Dion announced a Canadian mission to stabilize Lebanon. He
warned it was at a “tipping point” and needed Canadian help to avoid
collapse as it struggles with the pressures of the Syrian civil war next
door. It is part of Canada’s revamped mission to counter Daesh, put in
motion after Canada pulled out of airstrikes against the group when
Justin Trudeau came to power.
Lebanon has weathered the storm, but containing Syria’s chaos is an
ongoing struggle. There have been bombings, arrests of jihadist leaders
and foiled terror plots, all linked to Daesh. As state infrastructure
buckles under the enormous strain of the refugee influx, Lebanon’s warm
welcome is cooling. One in four people in Lebanon are now Syrian
refugees. Foreign aid has poured in to ease
the burden. But against the towering needs of Syria’s displaced, the
response falls short. In an interview, UNICEF’s chief of field
operations for Lebanon said that as of November — almost year’s end —
just 50 to 60 per cent of the group’s annual appeal had been funded.
contribution is a $1.6-billion development and security package (spread
over three years) for Lebanon and Jordan — another Mideast ally deemed
at risk of collapse. Signs of the crisis
are on full display in Arsal. Originally home to some 30,000 people, it
now hosts an additional 60,000 to 90,000 Syrian refugees. Looking down
from the army position in the mountains, clusters of white refugee tents
dominate the town. One of Canada’s
principal aims in Lebanon is to promote “social cohesion” between Syrian
refugees and their Lebanese hosts. But with refugees vastly
outnumbering locals in Arsal, and a widely held belief that refugees are
sheltering jihadi fighters, the relationship has coarsened. Last summer
the municipality imposed a curfew requiring refugees to stay inside
between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Lebanese troops surround the town, imposing what one conflict monitoring
group said amounts to a “virtual siege.” Driving through the narrow,
barely passable mountain roads surrounding Arsal, army outposts are
visible every kilometre or so. Sandbag barricades, tanks and artillery
guns dot the barren, rocky landscape.
a day passes up here without exchanges of fire between militants and
the Lebanese army. Col. Assir says enemy fighters regularly creep to
within range of army positions and open fire with U.S.-made TOW missiles
or rocket-propelled grenades.
light out and we’re looking down from these positions and see groups in
the mountains, we fire at any target we see,” Assir says.
has been quietly busy here over the last year. Canada’s Department of
National Defence recently confirmed a Canadian Forces team is on the
ground in Lebanon, planning a training mission for Lebanese soldiers.
Then in December, Dion stopped in Lebanon
to announce plans to fund a forward operating base near the Syrian
border. That’s on top of an earlier joint commitment with the United
Kingdom to pay for surveillance towers to monitor the border and help
bring it fully under Lebanese control.
Canada is also supplying the poorly equipped army with winter gear.
the United Kingdom and the United States are also big donors. With Iraq
and Syria’s future as viable states increasingly in question, there’s
an international effort underway to prove a multi-ethnic,
multi-sectarian democracy can still exist in this corner of the Middle
It appears to be working. In
Arsal, the army has clawed back territory from the jihadists, arrested
Daesh leaders and overall levels of violence are down. For now, the
threat appears mostly contained.
challenges persist. In addition to the fighters lodged in the outskirts
of town, the army says more are still hiding among the local population.
October, militants on motorcycles shot and killed a Lebanese soldier
outside his home in Arsal. For Assir and his men, it was a reminder of
the army’s limited control. “We can go in sometimes, but if we go in too
often they will remember us and plant a bomb under our car.”
Most of the soldiers in our escort wear balaclavas to hide their identities, and I’m forbidden from photographing their faces.
the militant presence inside Arsal, the army is hesitant to enter in
force to flush them out, fearing another round of open fighting and
condemnation from the international community.
“We obey international law, so we can’t just go in and kill them all, because we can’t afford the legal consequences.”
the army maintains a perimeter around Arsal, mining intelligence
networks until they receive word a Daesh leader is inside the town. Then
they conduct raids and make arrests. One such raid in late November
netted a Daesh commander and 10 other militants.
use similar tactics against weapons smugglers and money mules trying to
move large amounts of cash for the militants. Before the attacks, Arsal
was a major crossing for refugees, jihadist fighters and gunrunners,
but Assir says the army has mostly put an end to that.
As we drive through a checkpoint on the edge of town, Assir clarifies the army’s approach.
like a border now,” Assir says, gesturing toward the empty street
crossing. “A buffer zone. Anyone who wants to leave should be checked.
If you’re an illegal refugee you can stay here, but you can’t cross
further into Lebanon.”
It’s a frank
acknowledgement that the town’s limits — which are not a border — have
become a corral for refugees and potential terrorists.
say the army has essentially ceded Arsal to jihadists, allowing them to
stay put as long as they keep a low profile. But with the town
surrounded and access strictly limited, Arsal’s townspeople are stuck
inside with them.
“Whenever there’s a
security problem, they let it fester to the extent that the solution is
to turn it into an enclave and close it off,” says Sahar Atrache, an
analyst with the International Crisis Group.
they don’t understand is that by inflicting this exclusion on Arsal,
it’s creating lots of resentment in the population. It will sooner or
She says Canada should promote a more humanitarian, community-based approach by the army.
about the army’s relationship with the townspeople, Col. Assir responds
confidently. “It is excellent. They love that the army is here.”
everyone seems to think so. Human Rights Watch researcher Lama Fakih
told me her organization documented allegations of torture by the army
against Syrian and Lebanese terror suspects detained in Arsal. They say
the torture extracted false confessions, which were then used to win
convictions in military trials.
Fakih says Canada should be auditing assistance to the army to ensure it’s not supporting violations of international law.
spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said Canada does audit
programming provided to Lebanon, but refused to confirm whether the
department is aware of the allegations or answer direct questions about
“We engage on an ongoing basis with
Lebanese authorities on a variety of issues, including those that relate
to human rights,” Michael O’Shaughnessy said.
out of Arsal in the late afternoon, we lurch back and forth inside the
army jeep as our convoy bounces down an impossibly bumpy military access
road. Passing a deep quarry, a large cave opening comes into view on
our right. It’s about six metres across.
“They’re all over the mountains,” Assir says. “These natural shelters are what make it so hard to root them out.”
I ask him what he thinks it’s going to take to get rid of them for good.
He thinks for a moment.
“Politics,” he says. “When we have a good government in Syria we can communicate with, you can get them out very easily.”
an optimistic thought. But with major obstacles to a peace agreement,
stable governance there isn’t exactly on the horizon.
Col. Assir and his men may yet be out here a very long time.
Corbett Hancey is a Gordon Sinclair Foundation Reporting Fellow.