Lebanon army in uncharted territory near Syria border

Maya Gebeily –
The dust-covered soldiers, armoured vehicles and tents may not look very official, but they mark the first time Lebanese troops have deployed in this sliver of land along the Syrian border.
After a week-long campaign against the IS group, Lebanese troops have established an unprecedented presence in the northeastern area of Jurud Ras Baalbek, a belt of territory that has been a longstanding source of contention with Syria. An evacuation deal led to the extremists’ withdrawal into eastern Syria on Monday.
Dozens of Lebanese troops are manning newly erected outposts on a string of barren hilltops near Syrian territory.
“When we advanced, we pulled out the IS flag and stuck in a Lebanese flag for the first time,” said a soldier.
Lebanon and Syria share a 330-km border, with no official demarcation at several points, including in the northeast.
Damascus and Beirut signed an agreement in 2008 to more clearly demarcate the border. The northeastern frontier remains largely uncontrolled, until now.
“This is the closest the Lebanese army and state have gotten to completely controlling the border with Syria,” said Aram Nerguizian of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Many of the soldiers who spoke to AFP described it as the closest they had ever been to this sector of the border.
After Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, the northeastern border areas were regularly hit by stray shells.
In 2014, militants overran both sides of the frontier, including Jurud Ras Baalbek and the Lebanese border town of Arsal further south.
The army launched its operation against extremists in the area on August 19, coinciding with a simultaneous assault waged from the Syrian side by Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah and the Syrian army. Lebanese troops had cornered IS into 20 square kilometres of territory in the border region when a ceasefire deal was announced on Sunday morning.
The agreement was reportedly negotiated between Hezbollah and IS and has seen hundreds of fighters leave the border area for eastern Syria. Lebanon’s army has insisted that there was no coordination with Hezbollah on the offensive.
Late on Monday, the group’s head Hassan Nasrallah said IS’s withdrawal was a “great achievement,” calling for celebrations later in the week. “The Lebanese Armed Forces’ campaign is not something many Lebanese let alone Hezbollah expected,” said Nerguizian. — AFP