07:54 GMT +317 November 2019
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    A checkpoint on the Syrina border with Lebanon near Qalamoun, Syria

    A Day Fighting Extremism With Hezbollah

    © Sputnik / Mohammad Alaeddin
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    The Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah has joined forces with those of Basher al-Assad's Syrian government to confront the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front; a Sputnik correspondent spent a day with Hezbollah fighters in the region of Qalamoun.

    Press tours are common in the Middle East, but this was an unlikely one. Although Sputnik's hosts were fighting the scourge of the region, the Islamic State, they were considered by the United States, Canada and Israel to be terrorists themselves. The day before the trip, a Hezbollah representative told journalists where and when to meet, but didn't specify a route. He requested that Sputnik correspondent Mohamad Alaeddin come in an off-road vehicle, explaining with a joke that they haven't had time to construct roads yet in the areas that had been liberated from the opposition forces.

    The journey began with a meeting in the Hezbollah press-center in Dahieh, a southern suburb of Beirut. The district is surrounded by army block posts, at which security officials thoroughly check all those attempting to enter the predominantly Shiite suburb.

    Since the beginning of May, the Syrian army and Hezbollah have been engaged in a joint operation to liberate the mountain region of Qalamoun, on the border of Syria and Lebanon, from militants from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front.

    Within the space of three weeks, say Hezbollah, 314 square kilometers, or 80 percent of the territory, has been brought under the control of the coalition, including strategically important areas such as Tel Musa, 2,500 meters above sea level, and many border passages which had been used by the militias to infiltrate Lebanon.

    In the Company of Lebanese Guerrillas

    If in Beirut it was hard to believe there was a war going on just one hour's drive away, arriving in the town of Baalbek 80 kilometers away made the unpleasant reality of the civil conflict far more obvious. In the town, which is known for its ancient Roman ruins, the view from the window had changed distinctly. At almost all of the conspicuous number of Lebanese army posts stood armored vehicles with machine guns primed to fire at any moment.

    Beyond Baalbek, our correspondent was met by men in sandy-colored camouflage uniforms which lacked Lebanese insignia or chevrons: they're not members of the Lebanese army, they fight for Hezbollah. 

    After half an hour racing up and down windy, unsurfaced roads, the all-terrain vehicles come to a stop at Tel al-Hawa mountain, from which the area of Arsal is visible; it is considered a strategically important vantage point.

    Looking Into the Line of Fire

    The commander warned the group of journalists immediately: "Friends, I urge you not to go towards the edge of the hill. Not because I'm scared you'll fall. But because I'm worried that you're be shot by an enemy sniper. You need to understand, that the enemy is very close, and the situation changes quickly."

    The correspondents look around at the Hezbollah fighters, who are well-equipped: they have pistols and several rounds of ammunition each as well as walkie talkies; there is a constant sound of machine gun and even artillery fire.

    "Don't you worry. That's our forces shooting, so that the enemy doesn’t relax. If you stay careful, you'll be completely safe," says one of the fighters, who smiles and offers a cigarette.

    A photograph of Hezbollah, taken by our correspondent on his report.
    © Sputnik / Mohammad Alayeddin
    A photograph of Hezbollah, taken by our correspondent on his report.

    The Alignment of Forces on the Lebanese-Syrian Border

    The commander of the guerrilla forces says that in the 1,000 square kilometer conflict zone, around 3,000 Islamist militants fight for the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front and the less well known Liva al-Guraba, a contingent of well-trained foreign mercenaries: militant groups which shift in and out of alliances, and often have conflicts amongst themselves.

    "The number of terrorists is constantly changing," explains the Hezbollah commander. "They come and go through Arsal. In that area, there are a lot of camps for Syrian refugees where about 80,000 people are living. In addition, about one fifth of the Syrian refugee camps are on territory controlled by the Islamists."

    The commander says that in the refugee camps, militants are able to find converts to the cause; disenchanted refugees with nothing to lose, and also impressionable youths ready to take up arms for the Islamic State or al-Nusra. It's practically impossible to tell the difference between genuine refugees and militants in the camps, he says. 

    Then the convoy moves on to the most interesting destination in the press tour; to the hills which were "cleared" just a day ago, and where there are still some al-Nusra fighters lurking. Accompanied by the gunfire which still rages 10 kilometers away from us on the high point of Tel-Talledzhe, our correspondent cross the Lebanese-Syrian border. Nobody is guarding it, so it comes as no surprise that militants cross it with ease.

    Cheek to Cheek With the Militants 

    The group gets to a camp in Syrian territory which was formerly inhabited by fighters of the al-Nusra Front. More than 40 such camps and transit points have been destroyed, many as a result of the jihadists mining them with explosives before they fled. At the entrance to one of the caves is a large banner reading "From brotherly Saudi to the friendly Nusra of Syria."

    "This camp was cleared only a few days ago, so our engineers have not had time to demine it completely. Don’t touch anything and don’t go beyond the marked trails," warns the commander.

    Just a few kilometers away is the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Since August of last year, the town has been under the control of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. It's going to take a lot of effort to restore peace in this corner of Lebanon, but Hezbollah's fighters consider themselves up to the task.


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