The battle in the Qalamoun mountains started in November 2013 with fierce clashes between Syrian opposition groups and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to control this strategic area on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Since then, it has evolved and drawn in more fighters, but one group in particular—the Nusra Front—is emerging as the biggest threat to Lebanon’s security and stability.

The Qalamoun region had become a major destination for Syrian opposition fighters fleeing regime forces by late 2013, providing a passage to Lebanese safe havens. Syrian militants had also established supply lines running from Lebanese towns along the border into Syria. Both the remnant brigades of the Free Syrian Army, a network of rebel groups that has been fighting Assad for years, as well as Nusra Front militants seeking refuge from the Islamic State’s advances in Syria headed toward the Qalamoun region and established a presence there.

Qalamoun’s strategic location meant that the Assad regime could not ignore these developments and allow the safe havens to exist. The national Syrian army moved to encircle militants on the Syrian side of the mountain range, while its ally the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah took charge of the Lebanese side, with the exception of the Sunni town of Arsal and its outskirts.

Various skirmishes have taken place to control that territory. But the Nusra Front has established itself as the most successful group, with well-positioned and well-supplied fighters. The Islamic State moved into Qalamoun in late 2014, threatening the Nusra Front’s position. Still, the Nusra Front is the group with the real potential to change the game.

Gambles and Gambits

The success of the Nusra Front in Qalamoun can be partly attributed to its significant presence in border towns on Lebanese territory. Thanks to a supportive environment, border towns like Arsal could be used as launchpads for militant operations in the mountain range.

But following the battle of Arsal between the Nusra Front and the Lebanese Army in August 2014, the army cut off most of the passages between the town and its outskirts at the foot of the mountain range. The aim of this move was to make it difficult for Nusra Front militants to survive the harsh winter without supply lines and safe passages to shelter from the snow. The Assad regime and Hezbollah bet that the arrival of winter would do away with the militant threat.

Yet it did not. The Nusra Front launched continuous attacks on Hezbollah and regime border posts, proving it was able to survive the severe weather conditions and demonstrating its readiness to breach the encirclement.

Losing its winter gamble, the Assad regime resorted to another indirect gambit: stirring up a confrontation between the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, and the remnants of the opposition in Qalamoun. Islamic State militants previously had a relatively small presence in the Qalamoun mountains and little access to supply lines because passages were mainly controlled by the Nusra Front or the regime. Damascus eased the pressure on the Islamic State’s supply lines and facilitated the arrival of their fighters in Qalamoun in late 2014. 

This plan worked to a degree. Islamic State fighters attacked some of the opposition brigades and stormed their mountain strongholds. However, a pragmatic alliance stood in the Islamic State’s path. 

Abandoned for more than a year and lacking adequate support from the international community and anti-Assad Arab states, Free Syrian Army fighters had begun to lose hope of receiving any significant aid from foreign stakeholders. They therefore resorted to any means that would provide them with basic supplies in order to keep fighting Assad’s forces and Hezbollah. 

The well-supplied Nusra Front won the trust and loyalty of these fighters, which translated into cooperation in Qalamoun. The alliance between the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army was stronger than the nascent Islamic State force, and to date it has effectively resisted any expansion by the Islamic State in the area.

The Free Syrian Army Between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State

Still, the Islamic State has persisted in attempting to expand in Qalamoun. And it may be able to extend its reach if the remaining Free Syrian Army fighters were to defect, whether willingly or by force, to its side. This scenario would become likely if the Nusra Front’s access to resources were to dwindle further, which would leave the Free Syrian Army vulnerable again.

Islamic State commanders, known as emirs, have been attentive to this possibility and will do everything possible to take advantage of such a scenario. In addition, the psychological tactics that Islamic State militants have mastered across Iraq and Syria are being used to increase the pace of defections. Rumors are being spread daily about the large number of Islamic State fighters in Qalamoun, and false information is being circulated about Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army militants’ defections and pledges of allegiance to Islamic State command. Furthermore, the Assad regime’s and Hezbollah’s media are disseminating exaggerated reports about the success of Islamic State fighters in the area and amplifying the losses of the Nusra Front to make sure division and suspicion are ignited between the Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army militants—a classic divide and conquer strategy.

As a result, the Nusra Front has been pressured to find alternate routes for its men and supplies to guarantee the cohesion and loyalty of its militants as well as the Free Syrian Army. It needs that cohesion to continue the battle against Assad, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State.

Next Steps for the Nusra Front

Cut off from Arsal for the time being, the Nusra Front is preparing for attacks across the Lebanese-Syrian border to counter the effect of the Assad–Islamic State stratagem. With supporters among the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and sympathizers amid Lebanese Sunni hardliners, Nusra Front leaders are making steady progress toward their goal of weathering the Qalamoun storm. 

The more support the Nusra Front can generate in Lebanese border towns, the better able it will be to launch attacks on Hezbollah strongholds and ease the pressure on its fighters on the Lebanese side of the Qalamoun mountains.

The Nusra Front is also showing readiness to strike a deal for the Lebanese soldiers it captured during the Arsal battle, which could bolster its position further. Messages have been delivered to Lebanese decisionmakers and the army command about the Nusra Front’s willingness to exchange the hostages for medical and food supplies, as well as for a guarantee of safe passage for militants to the Lebanese-Syrian border region. Historically, outlaws have taken shelter on this land, and cross-border smuggling routes have run through it. 

What makes this arrangement—which has yet to be made public—appealing to the Lebanese government is that it does not include any deal to exchange jihadists who are currently held in the Lebanese Roumieh prison. Lebanese decisionmakers cannot afford to release captured jihadists because of the security repercussions such a move would entail. 

The imprisoned militants are a significant problem for the Lebanese government. Since the Arsal battle, Lebanese authorities have observed communications from inside Roumieh prison going to militants on the outskirts of Arsal. The communications provide the militants that are not imprisoned with the needed guidance to infiltrate Lebanese territory. 

The Lebanese authorities cracked down on that behavior in January 2015 without any fear that the militants would retaliate by killing the captured soldiers, likely because of the pending deal. The raid led to the imposition of order inside the prison, including the banning of all communications, the dismantling of the Islamic prisoners’ covertly established operations and communications room, and the placement of those prisoners in a new cell block. Interrogations of the prisoners are also leading to the exposure of jihadist sleeper cells and suicide bombers across Lebanon. 

Yet, the Lebanese authorities have been inconsistent in pursuing these efforts due to domestic political disagreements. If such operations are abandoned, militants’ access to the border areas will increase. 

This also has repercussions for Syria. The more control the Nusra Front gains over border towns in the Qalamoun region, the greater its capacity will be to threaten the Assad regime’s strongholds in Syria—its ultimate aim.

Such strategic successes will give the group the upper hand in the Qalamoun battle and escalate the risks to Lebanon’s security and stability. The Islamic State’s expansion in Qalamoun is not the real threat—the Nusra Front’s attempt to gain more control along the Lebanese side of the border is.

Notes

1 This analysis draws on fieldwork conducted in Lebanon in late 2014 and early 2015.