Beirut has been submerged in a rare period of almost complete celebration as a variety of different political and social events coincided with one another. The Shia Muslim majority districts of Beirut have already been in a state of celebratory preparation ahead of the 39th anniversary since the disappearance of the local political icon, Sayid Musa al-Sadr, who went missing in Libya on 30th August 1978 – while at the same time, the Lebanese President Aoun announced the Lebanese army’s (LAF) complete triumph over ISIS in Lebanon, liberating all areas once occupied by the terror group in the country.
Yet, not everyone can be found celebrating, as the news of the victory comes with the sorrowful news of the fate of the kidnapped Lebanese security servicemen who were seized by ISIS during the battle of Arsal in 2014 which saw a terror coalition of Nusra and ISIS fighters storm the town of Arsal which sits near the Lebanese-Syrian border region. All the remaining servicemen that had not been accounted for have been announced dead – the families of the martyred soldiers were left in a state of desperate hopefulness that their beloved heroes may have been kept alive by the group (which is famous for brutally executing its captives) to be used as bargaining chips, alas, that was not the case. The devastated families will hopefully find comfort in finally knowing the fate of their lost defenders, but that won’t fix the years of anger and frustration at the perceived lack of effort or progress the authorities have made in securing the release of the men held by ISIS, a frustration which, coincidently, is still also felt by the family of the missing Sayid Musa al-Sadr.
The information on the fate of the martyred soldiers was obtained after a deal was struck between ISIS and Hezbollah (with Syrian help) for the transporting of the remaining 300 or so ISIS fighters from the western Syria border over to the ISIS-occupied area in eastern Syria. In exchange, the fighting on the Lebanese border would end and the information on the soldiers revealed. The problem is, now we know for sure that the soldiers are dead, the image of the Salafist ISIS murderers being escorted safely and comfortably across Syria to be reunited with their murderous colleagues in Deir al-Zour, close to Iraq, has caused outrage among not just some Lebanese but also high profile Iraqis and US officials.
Iraq’s PM Abadi was the highest profile Iraqi to voice his fury at what is a new precedent for negotiations with the terror group saying the deal was “unacceptable” and an “insult to the Iraqi people”.
“Honestly speaking, we are unhappy and consider it incorrect,” Abadi said to reporters. “Transferring terrorists from Qalamoun ( Lebanese-Syrian border) to the Iraqi-Syrian border is worrying and an insult to the people.”
The US has also expressed its anger at the deal, with reports already circulating that the US is reconsidering its military aid to the Lebanese army as a response to apparent Lebanese authorities cooperation with Hezbollah and agreeing to negotiate with terrorist groups – a move which contradicts the USA’s policy of “no negotiating with terrorists”. The deal has still not been fully executed before the US intervened militarily by attacking the route which the coaches are carrying the roughly 300 ISIS members to transport the fighters to their destination of Deir al-Zour, meaning the convoy has now been left stranded in Syria until further notice. The only thing stopping the US from hitting the convoy directly was the fact that the families of the fighters, including women and children, were also present with the convoy; any attack on the convoy could also see the US air force kill the Syrian Army and Hezbollah escorts, a scenario which could cause major complications with the delicate relationship between the US & Russia.
Iraq’s complaint suggests that the deal endangers their country and strengthens ISIS at a time when Iraq’s army is embroiled in fierce fighting to liberate the remaining ISIS occupied areas while the rest of the country continues to suffer from regular suicide attacks targeting civilian areas across the nation. In reality the 300 odd terrorists have not been moved into Iraq, as some Iraqi artists have attempted to portray, instead the terrorists are simply being transported from one area of Syria to another; once the deal is complete the terrorists will be on a new front line on the western front but still on the Syrian side of the border facing both Syrian Arab Army troops and the Hezbollah.
“We fight the terrorists in Iraq. We do not send them to Syria,” Abadi lampooned at Hezbollah, Syria & Lebanon, but that point is not exactly true when you consider how Abadi refused to acknowledge advice by senior Hashd al-Shaabi leadership to outflank ISIS and cut off their retreat route to Syria. Nor did he seem to mention during his angry rant that the US allowed ISIS fighters to flee in Syria from Mosul and Anbar free from attack but now refuses to allow this signal convoy in Syria to advance, rendering the 300 terrorist stranded in Syria’s procession – a lot of hypocrisy on display here, which is something the Hezbollah has desperately tried to point out with continuous statements being released in Arabic and English. Abadi’s very public criticism of the deal has gifted a rare PR opportunity for the US, which it has seen and pounced upon with great enthusiasm. Damascus did not whinge at Iraq when Abadi decided to ceded to American pressure by refrained from attempting to liberate the Iraq border through Anbar
The USA threatens Lebanon, again
The reports alleging the Pentagon may withdraw all its military aid from the Lebanese army in retaliation for Lebanon’s participation in the deal which is seen as a Hezbollah spearheaded arrangement, if true, would have devastating effects on Lebanon’s abilities to defend itself in future standoffs. Despite the Lebanese Army’s impressive display over the past few weeks, earning it a significant victory over ISIS, the US seeks to punish the country for simply getting results. Wouldn’t we wish to know what had happened to our kidnapped heroes if a number of British or American soldiers were kidnapped by a terror gang, even if it meant doing a deal with the devil in order to finalize what has been a traumatic ordeal for Lebanon? Not an important question to answer for the Pentagon, so desperately starved of success in Syria that any form of good PR, no matter how low-slung or insignificant, would be leapt upon with great pleasure and gorged upon, even at the expense of its Lebanese partners.
I doubt highly that the US will completely abandon Lebanon in the long term, this is but one of the several examples of America threatening to withdraw support due to the governments supposed cooperation with Hezbollah but it is incredibly naïve of anyone, especially the US, to expect Lebanon or the LAF to be able to completely avoiding interaction with Hezbollah or the SAA during battles and military negotiations which see the LAF, Hezbollah and the SAA all deployed on the same combat arena at the same time – essentially fighting the same battle again the same opponent at the same time – the Pentagon is folly to think so, if indeed it genuinely does.
The American’s threats against Lebanon are most likely as empty as their threats against North Korea are but what is more curious to me about this whole theatrical ordeal is how rapidly the circumstances turned from the accomplishment of Lebanon into a Syrian vs Iraqi vendetta damaging the once pristine image of the “resistance axis” spanning from Iran, through Iraq and into Syria and south Lebanon. Could this be a taste of things to come? With ISIS bleeding territory and becoming more irrelevant by the day, could an increasingly more outward thinking Iraq begin to flex its muscles and seek its own regional standing at the cost of its relations with its ‘resistance axis’ allies? I am sure this is what the Pentagon and Riyadh are eagerly anticipating.
Walking a tightrope
Iraq has suffered tremendously at the hands of ISIS. According to UN statistics, at least 6,878 Iraqi civilians were killed in violence inflicted by ISIS in 2016 alone. The figure is of UN recorded fatalities and is likely higher than that amount but Iraq is not the only country to suffer, nor is the only country fighting on the front lines against ISIS, in fact, Iraq has relied heavily on the support of its neighbours for much-needed assistance. Iranian support for Iraq has been fundamental to Iraq’s recovery, particularly back when ISIS was virtually knocking on the doors of Baghdad. How about the role that the Lebanese Hezbollah played in the battles for Jurf al-Sakr, Samarra & Mosul? Lebanon’s Hezbollah has lost several key figures in Iraq after sending senior advisors to help organise a demoralised Iraqi army which fled on mass at the first major incursion which saw ISIS sweep across the Sunni majority areas of western Iraq, tearing the country in half and bringing the terror cult within artillery striking distance of the capital at one stage.
Iraq is a country which was once a regional superpower, with the potential to possibly become a semi-world power, alas, Iraq has fallen far from that once grand image. Yet, I am adamant that Iraq will eventually become a leading regional powerhouse again; already, Iraq has attracted serious attention by its neighbours and international superpowers, despite its abysmal situation. Its geographical location, its oil resources and its sheer size will ensure it has a future once it has stabilised its internal sectarian strife and political infighting but while it remains in a state of dependency on foreign support Iraq will remain vulnerable to manipulation by its various sponsors. The USA, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran all have a presence in Iraq which fills the void left by failed institutional sovereignty.
Abadi has been trying to encourage unity among the various factions within Iraqi politics and society, helped by the common enemy they all currently share but that enemy, ISIS, will eventually be defeated. The Shia led ‘Resistance Axis’ has played a huge role in protecting Iraq – with the hope Iraq will fall into place as a loyal member – but the USA & Saudi Arabia can see new opportunities to revive its standing within Iraq, this time through cooperation with their own Shia partners. Abadi has received the backing of Muqtada al-Sadr at a time when both Muqtada and Abadi’s government in Baghdad are both seeking Saudi rapprochement; Abadi has made clear in previous encounters with senior Iranian officials that he favours American support over that of revolutionary Iran’s, likewise, Muqtada has criticised Iran for interfering in Iraqi politics and has made serious efforts to avoid working alongside elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi, which is considered to be a largely Iranian-backed umbrella organisation.
The spat between Syria & Lebanon vs Iraq & the US could be the beginning of a bigger rift set to take shape going forward but at this stage, only one thing is for certain, while the nation states of the northern Middle East squabble, ISIS benefit and so does America’s PR.