By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai
Lebanon managed to cleanse its northern-eastern borders of over 8,000 al-Qaeda members and their families, evacuated since last August into Idlib, the northern Syrian city. The entire world, including the Lebanese, was watching the deal and observing how the Lebanese political authority (President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri) favoured this Hezbollah outcome. The group managed to liberate Arsal outskirts and eliminated al-Qaeda from its territory. The US moved only to recall its Lebanese supporters who were being enthusiastically dragged behind Hezbollah on media and social media.
One month later, Hezbollah informed President Aoun of its intention to start the battle against “Islamic State” with or without the Lebanese Army Forces (LAF), from the Syrian territory. Aoun, as an ex-Army general, understood Hezbollah’s attack would push ISIS towards Lebanon, making the LAF battle much more complex and difficult. Aoun asked for more time and LAF was ready for the battle days later.
As in every battle, either the enemy is annihilated or surrenders: ISIS chose the latter when cornered in Syrian territory. The rendition conditions dictated by Hezbollah were agreed by both the Lebanese President and Prime Minister, leading to the evacuation of 309 ISIS militants and 341 women and children and wounded to the east Syrian town of Deir-al Zour / Al-bu Kamal. Nevertheless, the reaction to the Hezbollah victory over the terrorist groups on the Lebanese-Syrian borders and the evacuation of 625 ISIS fighters and their families in 17 buses was different from a similar one of 8,000 al-Qaeda and their families in 98 buses. Why?
The ISIS evacuation created a small internal storm in Lebanon, a habitual reaction between Lebanese with differing loyalties due to a long-lasting internal political struggle over Hezbollah. But the matter went beyond the Lebanese borders due to the intervention of the Iraqi Shia authority against the Hezbollah Shia.
This “storm” between Shia across borders pushed the US forces to jump in: its Air Force stopped the last 6 ISIS busses on the exchange point to disturb the exchange. The US military allowed the exchange of two Hezbollah corpses and the body of one Iranian IRGC beheaded by ISIS and the transfer of 11 busses carrying 200 ISIS and 121 family members into ISIS territory without allowing these to go much further. US drones are in the air 24 hours a day bombing busses on both sides of the exchange point to make sure all 17 busses are blocked. Furthermore, the US Air Force bombed an ISIS vehicle believing it was carrying the only Hezbollah prisoner (Ahmad Ma’took) in ISIS hands, close to the exchange area, thinking he was in the destroyed target. This US intervention blocked 109 ISIS terrorists and 120 civilians. Worth saying that US Air Force never bombed ISIS on the Lebanese-Syrian borders since its presence 3 years ago.
The US intervention was possible because the Shia ranks were divided, bringing to light the real difference between two fronts. Hezbollah was taken by surprise watching the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Sadrist leader Moqtada al-Sadr taking a hostile position, massively increasing the tension between the two fronts. There is in fact, a hidden actor in this “internal” dispute: the forthcoming election in Iraq.
Iraqi people can be emotional and are therefore easily manipulated through the media. This matter has nothing to do with Iraqi sovereignty because: the US is in the country; Turkey has been refusing to pull out its forces for two years; ISIS is still occupying part of Iraq, and Kurdistan is blackmailing Baghdad, waving the independence card to extract money.
Therefore, the main point of the dispute is the influence of the “axis of the resistance” in Iraq: a direct message to Iran and its influence in Mesopotamia. Prime Minister Abadi is against increasing the power of Hashd al-Shabi and the independent groups fighting under its flag but with loyalty to the “axis of the resistance”. These reject any US presence in the country and in Syria and would like to go to the Iraqi-Syrian borders to fight ISIS, unlike Abadi.
In fact, the Iraqi Prime Minister considers groups fighting under Hashd to be out of his direct control and will be its fierce competitor in the forthcoming elections. Hashd supports Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi vice-President, ex-Prime Minister and head of the Da’wa party which Abadi is part of. Abadi has not been honest about the “fear of 308 ISIS coming close to the Iraqi borders”, though why he didn’t raise this matter within the military operational room in Baghdad that includes all parties (Iran and Hezbollah included) and through his regular intelligence and military officers visiting Damascus, we don’t know. He needed the media to send a message rather than be concerned with terrorism.
Therefore, the inter-Shia political struggle manifested by Iraq breaks all previous taboos, allowing enemies of the “axis of the resistance” to shout loudly against it, from under Abadi’s skirts. The Prime Minister has managed to expose openly what Lebanese opponents of Hezbollah failed to do for years.
The aggressive Iraqi approach is revealing a ferocity Iraqis should now expect in the forthcoming election, where no holds are barred in the contest to win the prize of the Prime Minister’s seat. It has little to do with the war against terrorism (al-Qaeda and ISIS) but is a war to regain power: dearest allies can be sold out and the political taboos broken even while the enemy (ISIS) is still in the country and the work to prevent the return of the terrorist group hasn’t yet been done. For love of power, Abadi has no hesitation in following Louis XV’s saying: “Après moi le deluge” (After me the flood).