Hajj Abu Ahmad, a grizzled senior commander with Hezbollah, flashed his laser pointer authoritatively on a large map as he described the intensity of the battle the militant group had waged to neutralize Al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian fighters bunkered in this mountainous area along the border between Lebanon and Syria.
“You had to fight rock to rock, hill to hill, quarry to quarry,” said Abu Ahmad, who used a nom de guerre, in line with Hezbollah’s policy.
His presentation, after an edited video of the group’s warriors in battle (“CDs of the video will be distributed,” promised a spokesman), was another salvo in a media offensive to show that the Lebanese group is not the regional “menace” President Trump called it last week, and that it occupies a pivotal role in the fight against Al Qaeda and Islamic State extremists.
That message was on full display Saturday, when the group corralled about 50 SUVs full of Western and local journalists to survey its victory here, among its famously media-shy commanders and fighters.
Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party, is also Lebanon’s strongest armed faction. Deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S., the group, empowered by its patron, Iran, has an outsized presence in the region.
Israel considers the group its most cunning foe. Hezbollah operatives, such as Imad Mughniyah (who was assassinated in 2008), sound like the stuff of spy movies. Along with Iran and Russia, Hezbollah has been instrumental in preventing the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad at the hands of the rebel factions arrayed against him, some backed by the United States.
Since late last week, Hezbollah-aligned TV and social media channels have delivered intimate accounts of the battle to wrest control of Arsal and its environs from the Organization for the Liberation of Syria, which was formerly associated with Al Qaeda and known as Al Nusra Front. The operation had been conducted in cooperation with the Lebanese and Syrian armies, who secured the perimeter on both sides of the border and prevented the jihadis from escaping.
By Thursday, the Islamist militants were cornered in a nearly 2-square-mile area and conceded defeat. A cease-fire was declared, along with an agreement to transfer an estimated 9,000 insurgents and their families from the area to rebel-held regions in Syria. (Its second phase began Monday, Hezbollah-affiliated media said.)
The tour for journalists became an occasion to survey an area inaccessible since 2014, when the militants had overrun Lebanese army positions here and taken a few dozen troops hostage. Nine remain missing and are thought to be in the hands of Islamic State, which still has a presence in other parts nearby.
The convoy, shepherded by camouflage-painted Polaris and Yamaha ATVs zooming back and forth on the harsh terrain, followed a path hewn through the Anti-Lebanon mountains to within four miles of the Syrian border. The area, long an important smuggling route between Lebanon and Syria, is famous for the apricot and cherry trees that line the uphill asphalt road. It soon gives way to a forbidding dirt track that weaves past the quarries that extract Arsal’s other important export, stone.
Those quarries, as well as the canyons crisscrossing the region, had been repurposed into makeshift bunkers by the militants, who had fortified their positions using tools commandeered from local stone workers. The defenses had rendered heavy weapons mostly ineffective, said Abu Ahmad in his military briefing, forcing Hezbollah to flush out the jihadis in brutal close-quarters combat.
“To be fair to [Al Nusra Front insurgents], they had good defensive planning,” he said, adding that Hezbollah had confirmed the death of 47 militants.
Hezbollah fighters had also been killed, although Abu Ahmad declined to say how many.
His presentation was held in an underground cavern first dug out during Lebanon’s civil war by Palestinian guerrillas. Years later, the anti-Assad militants had made it a rear-guard rebel base, shuttling men and materiel between Lebanon and Syria.
On one side stood what appeared to be a library, complete with religious books and CDs. One disc was labeled as a sermon titled, “What goes on underground.” Unassembled mortar shells were scattered nearby, while another room held ragged military vests and long boxes containing what appeared to be rocket launchers, as well as abandoned records of the weapons assigned to each insurgent.
Another stop at a hilltop military outpost (after a navigational bungle nearly caused one car to veer into Syria) allowed journalists to clamber over weathered-looking jeeps equipped with cannons. A commander exhorted fighters to lower their gaze to avoid the multitude of cameras.
The trip, said Sadeq Nabulsi, a Hezbollah-aligned analyst who had joined the tour, was “partly a response” to Trump’s statement about Hezbollah.
In a joint news conference in Washington last week with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Trump hailed Lebanon “for being on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.”
“Hezbollah is a menace to the Lebanese state, the Lebanese people, and the entire region,” said Trump, according to a White House transcript. He seemed unaware that Hariri’s government had come to power after making a deal with Hezbollah. Hariri reacted with a series of awkward grimaces.
Islamic State is also known as ISIS, ISIL and by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
Trump excoriated Hezbollah, along with its patron Iran, for “fueling the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria” even as its growing military arsenal “threatens to start yet another conflict with Israel.”
With this tour, Nabulsi said, Hezbollah was saying that it was on the front line against terrorism, “while America made Al Qaeda and Daesh and facilitated their growth.”
But Hezbollah also had a message for its audience in Lebanon, where some agree with Trump’s rebuke that the group puts Lebanon’s interests second to those of Iran.
Throughout the tour, it sought to emphasize its Lebanese origins. The pairing of Lebanese and Hezbollah flags was inescapable. The military presentation opened with the Lebanese national anthem, followed by that of Hezbollah. Near the hilltop position stood a rose-covered shrine dedicated to “the Martyrs of the Defense of Lebanon.”
“This is a Lebanese fight, 100%,” said Hadi, a bearded field commander who spoke with breezy confidence near the shrine. “The first beneficiary of this battle are the people of Arsal who weren’t able to come back and were left with no rights or income.”
He added that Hezbollah had waited for the “Lebanese state and the whole world” to secure Arsal, but politics had “embarrassed” the army. Finally Hezbollah had taken matters into its own hands, though it had no long-term designs on the area.
“If the army comes now, we will hand over our positions and leave. We don’t want to stay in these mountains,” said Hadi.
He was soon called away, and the Hezbollah spokesman, Mohammad Afif, gave a quick speech to mark the tour’s end.
True to his word, Afif produced the promised CDs, pressed into the hands of journalists by Hezbollah’s media team just before they began their long journey back to Beirut.
Bulos is a special correspondent.