After two swift weeks, Hezbollah managed to finish off hundreds of jihadis from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch operating in Syria and Lebanon since 2012. They have been stationed in the ridges of the northeast town of Arsal for five years, radicalizing and militarizing Lebanese towns and villages.
By the time a ceasefire went into effect on July 27, more than 140 members of the al-Qaeda affiliate were dead and others were begging for safe passage from Lebanon to Syria. The talks were handled by Abbas Ibrahim, the director of General Security in Lebanon who negotiated the surrender and exodus of what remains of the fighters with Abu Malek al-Talli, the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon – a rising star in jihadi circles who will likely play a greater role in years to come – if, of course, he is not killed.
Born Jamal Hasan Zeineh in 1988 in the village of Tal Feen in the countryside of Damascus, he grew up in poverty with very little elementary schooling, preferring instead to concentrate on Quranic studies. He worked briefly as a waiter until the Syria war broke out in 2011. Inspired by the Islamification of parts of the Damascus countryside, he joined the underground and was briefly arrested and jailed at the Saidnaya Prison with other radicals like Zahran Alloush, commander of the Islamic Army in the Damascus countryside. Upon release he took up arms with Jabhat al-Nusra, fighting Hezbollah in the strategic city of Qusayr in western Syria; strategically perched within the mountains overlooking the Lebanese border.
When the city was overrun by Hezbollah troops in the summer of 2013, Zeineh – or Abu Malek al-Talli – fled to the countryside of Yabroud, 80km north of Damascus. Months later he was forced out by another offensive of government troops and Hezbollah, setting up base in Arsal in 2015. His present exodus from Arsal to Idlib in the Syrian northwest is his third in four years. Sources close to the jihadi commander claim that he is planning to settle permanently in Idlib, a city occupied by a wide assortment of Islamic militias since mid-2015, which in late July, fell squarely in the hands of al-Nusra.
Reportedly, Abu Malik was wounded during the Arsal battles and wanted to surrender from day one. The founder and chief commander of al-Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, ordered him to press on, thinking that his troops would be capable of holding out much longer against Hezbollah because unlike the Shiite warriors, they controlled the hilltops and knew the caves and mountains, almost by heart. Abu Malik argued that it was wiser to reach an agreement and save the lives of 1,300 warriors than to slaughter them senselessly in Arsal. It took two weeks of battle to convince Golani, who finally ordered them out of Lebanon, conditioning safe passage to Syria. Before leaving, Abu Malek wrote out a final will for what remained of his supporters in Lebanon, calling on them to support a comrade named Abu Abdul Malek, who he appointed emir of Fleetah, a city in the Damascus countryside famed for its lawlessness and smugglers. “If he is killed” wrote Abu Malek “create a Shura Council to rule in his absence.”
The agreement calls for the complete evacuation of Jabhat al-Nusra from Arsal and the safe transfer of all militants and their families to Idlib – a total of 9,000 people. Five Hezbollah warriors were released in the prisoner exchange deal that followed, exchanged on August 4, and in return, Hezbollah released Jabhat al-Nusra prisoners, including three from the state prison in Roumieh, northeast of Beirut. Their release from a government jail, with no trial or consultation with other Lebanese authorities, raised eyebrows in the Lebanese Parliament. Some MPs objected, like Sami Gemayel of the Phalange Party, who addressing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said: “Who took the decision and allowed murderous criminals to leave the outskirts of Arsal and facilitated their return to their country without any trial or punishment?”
Other hardliners who have traditionally been critical of Hezbollah, like Prime Minister Hariri, were surprisingly silent or actually applauded the Shiite group – glad to see it fight the terrorists, although frowning at its rising military influence within Lebanon – at the expense, of course of Lebanese officialdom. During his July 25 visit to the White House, Hariri informed US President Donald Trump of plans by the Lebanese Army – under his command and that of President Michel Aoun – to launch a similar offensive but this time against ISIS fighters in Lebanon, located in Ras Baalbak in the northern Bekka valley, a stone’s throw from Syrian-Lebanese borders.
The Arsal battles were intended to give Hezbollah a facelift in Lebanese society, after so much criticism was levied against it for joining the battles in Syria. This time, Hezbollah will stand by and watch, letting Hariri take full honors of eradicating ISIS from the Bekka. The fighters there will either be killed or evacuated in similar fashion, first to Qara on the Syrian side of the border and then to Idlib as well.