The Lebanese Army agreed to a ceasefire with Sunni jihadists on Wednesday, allowing militants to withdraw from the besieged city of Arsal in northeastern Lebanon. As part of the deal, Sunni militants will release all captured government troops within 24 hours.
Clashes began on Friday after the Lebanese Army arrested the commander of a Syrian Islamist group, Imad Ahmad Jomaa. According to the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star, Jomaa admitted to planning a large terrorist attack against Lebanese Army bases. Jomaa’s sympathizers, including terrorists from Islamic State (IS) and al-Nusra Front, responded by attacking the Lebanese troops stationed in the area, subsequently gaining control over large parts of Arsal.
Lebanese army reinforcements arrive to the outskirts of Arsal near the Syrian border. (Photo: AP)
The conflict continued through Tuesday as the Lebanese Army bombarded the area with artillery. In a statement, Lebanese security officials said that 16 soldiers were killed, 86 were wounded, and 22 were missing after the fighting. Jihadists released video of troops taken hostage over the weekend. Approximately 50 Islamist fighters also died during the operation.
Thousands of Lebanese civilians fled deeper into Lebanon, but many Syrian refugees in the area were not allowed to leave. Predominantly Sunni, Arsal comprises a population of over 35,000 people, a number which has more than doubled due to the inflow of Syrian refugees.
Cross border shelling has occasionally been reported from neighboring Syria, but this weekend’s incident represents the first major attack by well-organized Sunni militants in Lebanon. The push into Lebanon reflects the IS’s expansionary aims; the group seized control of parts of Iraq two months ago and continues to make gains. Ultimately, the war in Syria has deepened the divide between the Shiite Lebanese allied to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunnis living in the region.