The Lebanese army on August 19 announced that it had launched a long-awaited military campaign against an Islamic State (IS) enclave straddling its northeast border with Syria.
At the same time, Lebanon's Shi'ite Hizballah group announced that it had started a joint military operation with the Syrian army from the Syrian side of the frontier, in the western Qalamun mountain range.
The Lebanese army said it was attacking the group from inside its territory and was not coordinating with Hizballah or the Syrian army in the operation.
In a televised news conference, a Lebanese army spokesman said the operation would continue until the army recovered control of the last part of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier that remains under the extremist group's control. The offensive seeks to end a years-old threat to neighboring towns and villages.
Any joint operation between the Lebanese army and Hizballah and the Syrian army would be politically sensitive in Lebanon because Lebanon is a recipient of sizable U.S. military aid and Washington classifies the Iran-backed Hizballah as a terrorist group.
Speaking at a televised news conference, General Ali Kanso characterized the 600 IS fighters in the area as 600 “suicide bombers.”
“It's the most difficult battle so far waged by the Lebanese army against terrorist groups -- the nature of the terrain and the enemy,” Kanso said.
Hizballah has provided critical military support to President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s six-year civil war.
In 2014, Syria’s war spilled over into northeastern Lebanon when Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front militants attacked the town of Arsal, when more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers were captured.
In July, Hizballah’s six-day offensive against IS and Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in the Jurud Arsal district ended with a cease-fire.
Hizballah and its allies have been pressing Lebanon to normalize relations with Damascus, challenging its official policy of neutrality towards Syria.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters