Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / AP

Has Russia saved Lebanon from ISIL?

Analysis: With the arrival of Russian jets in Syria, possibility of an ISIL push on Lebanon seems remote for now

RAS BAALBEK, Lebanon — Russia’s military intervention in Syria has alarmed the West and dismayed regional opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it may have spared neighboring Lebanon from the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

With the western edge of ISIL’s self-declared caliphate having reached the town of Qaryatayn, a mere 35 miles from Lebanon’s mountainous northeastern border, many Lebanese have fretted whether the group’s fighters might make a move on tiny Lebanon.

But with the arrival of Russian warplanes and helicopters in Syrian skies and Kurdish forces poised to advance on Raqqa, the capital of ISIL’s territory, any notion of an ISIL push on Lebanon seems to have evaporated — at least for now.

“All the minorities in the Middle East are thanking [Russian President Vladimir] Putin right now,” said Rifaat Nasrallah, the head of a local defense militia in the predominantly Christian village of Ras Baalbek.

For the past 12 days, Russian aircraft, based at a military airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast, have been staging multiple airstrikes across western Syria. Moscow says it is aiding Damascus in its struggle against terrorists, most notably ISIL, which has seized a swath of territory across Syria and Iraq. Last week Russian jets reportedly bombed ISIL positions in Qaryatayn.

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But most of the airstrikes appear to be targeting anti-Assad Syrian groups, including one that has received weapons and training from the United States. The airstrikes are focused on the juncture of Idlib, Hama and Latakia provinces in Syria’s north, where rebel groups have gained ground this year. With Russian air support, the Syrian army (reportedly backed by paramilitary forces from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan) launched an offensive last week in the northern province of Hama in an attempt to roll back recent rebel gains and safeguard the core government-controlled areas along the Mediterranean coast. On Saturday the Russian Defense Ministry said that warplanes carried out 67 combat missions in Syria — the highest daily tally since the airstrikes commenced on Sept. 30.

Still, the intensity of the Russian airstrikes and the evident determination of Putin to preserve the rule of his Syrian ally could compel ISIL to reconsider any plans it may have drawn up to extend its caliphate westward.

In May, ISIL captured the ancient town of Palmyra in central Syria. By early August, its fighters advanced 60 miles to the southwest to seize Qaryatayn. From there, ISIL could head west toward the central government corridor between Homs and Hama, move south toward Damascus or southwest into the mountainous Qalamoun region that straddles the border with Lebanon.

The key highway linking Damascus to Homs and the Mediterranean coast passes through Qalamoun. The Assad government has long been concerned that if rebel forces cut the highway, the capital would be effectively sealed off from the core government-controlled areas in the coastal mountains.

Underlining the importance of Qalamoun, Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia group in Lebanon that has been a key ally of Assad’s, has spearheaded two operations since November 2013 to drive rebel forces out of the region’s towns and villages and the surrounding mountains. A few hundred rebels, mainly from ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), Syria’s Al-Qaeda franchise, are still holed up in rugged mountains on the Lebanese side of the border near Ras Baalbek and the neighboring town of Arsal.

Even if ISIL abandons a push toward Lebanon from Qaryatayn, the few hundred fighters tucked into abandoned farms and quarries near Ras Baalbek still pose a threat. Barely a day goes by without an exchange of fire between the fighters and the Lebanese army, which mans a series of fortified outposts and checkpoints to block any incursions into populated areas of Lebanon. The nearest ISIL positions to Ras Baalbek are less than 3 miles to the east. Nasrallah and his men, with support from Hezbollah, man a number of observations posts, keeping a wary eye on the barren sepia-colored mountains that rise east of the village.

“We are hearing that Daesh [ISIL] has been able to bring in a few reinforcements lately,” said a Western intelligence source in Beirut.

Last week five Lebanese soldiers were wounded when ISIL mortar rounds hit their post. On Friday the U.S. announced the delivery of 50 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and 560 artillery rounds, some precision laser guided, to bolster the Lebanese army’s defense of the country’s eastern border.

Hezbollah’s focus of late has been on seizing the rebel-held town of Zabadani, in the southern Qalamoun area in Syria near the border with Lebanon. A cease-fire agreement reached last month has effectively ended the battle with surviving rebels and civilians permitted to depart. That leaves Hezbollah free to finish clearing the remaining pockets held by ISIL and other rebels in Qalamoun.

“We will go back to Qalamoun. We have no choice. We cannot leave them there,” says Abu Khalil, a thickly bearded, shaven-headed veteran Hezbollah fighter who has served more than 20 combat tours in Syria.

On Sunday the Lebanese army said it had killed several fighters when it heavily shelled their positions in remote valleys east of Arsal close to the border with Syria. Early Monday, Syrian helicopters staged a rare cross-border incursion into the same area.

Still, tackling ISIL in Qalamoun is a relatively minor endeavor compared with the scale of the Assad government’s offensive underway in northern Hama, the first conducted by the Syrian army in months.

The Russian intervention in Syria has been warmly greeted by Hezbollah and has provided a boost of confidence to the Assad government and its allies on the battlefield. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said on Thursday, “We have crossed the phase of danger” in Syria that could lead to a settlement of the conflict.

“The Syrian cause will take a new turn, and it might be possible to put it on the track of a serious political solution, because the world has started to look at it realistically,” he told Iran’s Ahwaz TV.

Hezbollah fighters are participating in the offensive in northern Hama. Hassan Hussein al-Haj, a senior Hezbollah military commander, was reported killed on Saturday during a battle for the village of Mansoura in Hama province. Hezbollah’s seasoned combatants are fighting alongside Syrian troops and Iraqi and Afghan Shia paramilitaries, with air support from Russia, against rebels backed by Turkey and some Arab Gulf states. Also roaming the increasingly busy airspace above Syria are U.S., British and French aircraft as part of an anti-ISIL coalition.

“What we have now in Syria is truly a world war,” says Abu Khalil.

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