How the battle for Arsal’s outskirts unfolded


Earlier this month, Hezbollah launched an offensive to cleanse Arsal’s outskirts of Al-Qaida affiliated militants.
BEIRUT: Arsal, a town adjoining a mountainous region located near the Lebanese-Syrian border, has been at the forefront of a spillover from war-torn Syria.

The area, situated about 70 miles northeast of Beirut, has long bared witness to times of turmoil and disorder, with affiliates of the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate, Fatah al-Sham Front– previously known as Al-Nusra Front – using it as a de facto base camp to launch attacks within Lebanon, notably due the fluid border passages it provides to the Syrian regions of Al Qalamoun and Al Qusair.
As the war swept through Syria, refugees and militants quickly flooded Arsal and its outskirts, a predominantly Sunni area. In 2014, hundreds of militants overran Arsal, killing and kidnapping a number of Lebanese soldiers and security forces.
Earlier this month, Hezbollah launched an offensive to cleanse Arsal’s outskirts of Al-Qaida affiliated militants.
Detailed below is a sequenced timeline of events from the day Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah announced the offensive.
11 July 2017: Nasrallah gives a televised speech indicating his group’s intentions, saying “Arsal terrorists still have a short time to surrender and approve the offered settlement, and this is the last time I tackle this issue,” while adding, “It’s about time we put an end to the threat of the militant groups”. The region is home to Free Syrian Army fighters, Fatah al-Sham Front militants and IS jihadists.
17 July 2017: In preparation for the imminent offensive by Hezbollah on militant groups entrenched within the outskirts of Arsal, the Syrian army conducts airstrikes on the Syrian side of the border aimed at weakening the militants’ positions.
20 July 2017: As Hezbollah’s offensive drew closer, negotiations with the Free Syrian Army resulted in an agreement that would permit their fighters and families safe passage to Swaida, a southwestern town in Syria. However, negotiations with Fatah al-Sham Front continued to falter due to the demands of their leader. Abu Malik Al-Talli, the group’s chief in Arsal, sought safe passage to Turkey, as well as assurances permitting his fighters to evacuate with their heavy weaponry. Meanwhile, the Syrian Air Force intensified its bombing campaign.
21 July 2017: Hezbollah erects strongholds and fortifications along the eastern outskirts of Arsal, stretching from northern Al-Qaa to eastern Britel of the Baalbek region, while the Lebanese Army maintains a defensive position around the different refugee camps in Arsal, home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees. Hezbollah’s offensive is to focus on Fatah al-Sham Front.
22 July 2017: Free Syrian Army fighters withdraw to refugee settlements in Wadi Hmayed in Arsal outskirts after coordinating with Hezbollah. Former deputy mayor of Arsal is killed while on a mediation mission between Hezbollah and Fatah al-Sham Front
23 July 2017: Hezbollah fighters resumed their offensive against Fatah al-Sham Front militants after negotiations floundered once more. Hezbollah fighters succeeded in capturing Fatah al-Sham Front command centers in Haqa bal-Khayl located on the eastern outskirt of Arsal, in addition to making significant advances on several hilltops in the militant-controlled area.
24 July 2017: Hezbollah tightens its grip on Fatah al-Sham Front after capturing almost a third of the territory previously under the latter’s control, pushing them back toward the Hamid valley which is in close proximity to the Lebanese army’s position. Their offensives on IS militants entrenched along the Al-Qaa outskirts is to be put on hold till the threat posed by Fatah al-Sham Front is terminated.
25 July 2017: Hezbollah begins making headway in regards to negotiations with Fatah al-Sham Front after inflicting heavy losses on the group while capturing two third of the territory previously under Fatah al-Sham Front’s control.
26 July 2017: Sporadic fighting continues, as Hezbollah fighters continue their advancement toward Fatah al-Sham Front -held positions, capturing numerous outposts along the way, while seizing large swathes of weapons and intelligence. Fatah al-Sham Front militants are now entrenched in a small area that doesn’t exceed a few kilometers.
27 July 2017: A ceasefire is brokered with help of head of General Security, Brigadier General Abbas Ibrahim. Ibrahim intervened, acting as a liaison in order to help broker the agreement between the two groups.
28 July 2017: Ibrahim announces that the ceasefire is holding, while details of the agreement are revealed. The first phase of the agreement includes the exchange of bodies of dead fighters while under the second phase, about 9,000 Syrians, including hundreds of Fatah al-Sham Front fighters, are granted safe passage to Idlib province in Syria and the central Qalamoun region in Syria. In exchange, eight Hezbollah fighters held by Fatah al-Sham Front will be returned home.
30 July 2017: Hezbollah hands over the bodies of nine Fatah al-Sham Front fighters in exchange for the bodies of five of its own.
31 July 2017: Preparations under way for the evacuation of thousands of Syrians as a part of the second phase of the deal.
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