The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Wednesday that the group was close to defeating Nusra Front militants in the battle along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
“We are in the face of a very big military victory,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. The militants have “effectively lost” most of the land they held in the barren, mountainous border region of Jroud Arsal, he added.
As soon as the fighting ends, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah would be ready to hand over territory it has captured if the Lebanese army requests it, he said.
In the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal, the operation has focused on the ex-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch until last year when it severed ties and rebranded. The next phase is expected to target a nearby enclave in the hands of ISIS militants.
The Lebanese army, a big recipient of US and British military support, has not taken part in the offensive and has set up defensive positions around Arsal, which Nasrallah described as essential. Negotiations began on Tuesday between Lebanese officials and the Nusra Front over the withdrawal of remaining militants to insurgent-held territory in Syria, he also said.
“There is seriousness, better than at any previous time,” Nasrallah said. But he added that militant demands remained unreasonable and that the Lebanese state, the Syrian government, and Hezbollah must each agree to the terms.
On the Syrian side of the border, Hezbollah fought “shoulder to shoulder” with the Syrian army around the town of Fleita in recent days and cleared the area of insurgents, Nasrallah said. Security sources say some two dozen Hezbollah fighters have been killed overall, and nearly 150 militants.
Early in the offensive, Saraya Ahl al-Sham - the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel faction that had a small presence in the area - pulled its fighters from the front lines, Nasrallah said. The rebels took charge of protecting nearby refugee camps.
“We facilitated this,” he said. “We are ready to work with the Lebanese state and the Syrian government on the withdrawal” of the rebel faction to Syria.
Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, nearly 1.5 million refugees have poured into Lebanon - around a quarter of its population - where most languish in severe poverty. Several thousand refugees live in makeshift camps east of Arsal.
The Lebanese army has been helping with the passage of refugees fleeing the recent clashes at the border, with United Nations supervision, according to a security source. The International Rescue Committee said around 390 people, mostly Syrian women and children, escaped to Arsal so far, many
of them visibly shaken.
Nasrallah said fighters were proceeding cautiously because of the proximity of the refugee camps. The border offensive had been in the works for months and Hezbollah asked the Syrian army to help after deciding to launch the battle, he said.
Nasrallah said on Wednesday he would not respond to Trump’s comments in order “not to embarrass” the official Lebanese delegation to Washington.