U.S. Special Forces in Lebanon Prepare to Fight ISIS – Alongside Hezbollah?

The Americans are training with the Lebanese army, while Hezbollah is gearing up to fight ISIS. Reports say ISIS may have fired rockets into Lebanon ahead of the operation

U.S. Special Operations service members in Afghanistan, April 25, 2011
U.S. Special Operations service members in Afghanistan, April 25, 2011 U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel P. Shook

U.S. special operations forces are aiding and training the Lebanese army in preparation for an upcoming confrontation with the Islamic State group along the Syrian border. At the same time, Lebanese militia Hezbollah announced it will battle ISIS on the Syrian side, Arab media reported on Sunday.

The Islamic State may have fired seven Grad rockets into Lebanon on Monday from its enclave on the border with Syria, without causing any injuries, a Lebanese security source said. 

It would mark the first use of those weapons by Islamic State fighters there for several years, and comes as the Lebanese army prepares for their assault. The rockets fell around the town of al-Qaa and led the Lebanese army to shell Islamic State positions in the hills nearby, the source said.

The Islamist militants and the Lebanese army have exchanged frequent shell, mortar and small arms fire over several years. 

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the forces' presence to Alhurra, a U.S.-based Arabic-language satellite television network. As quoted in The New Arab, the U.K.-based pan-Arab news network, Eric Pahon said, "Our special forces are providing training and support to the Lebanese Armed Forces," adding: "That not only concentrates on operational type missions, but also tactical and strategic type missions. We also have a presence with Lebanese special forces in all aspects of training and special operations."

Due to operational security reasons, the spokesman refrained from sharing further details such as the number of special operations forces present in Lebanon.

U.S. Air Forces’ special operations planes have been spotted frequently landing at Lebanese Special Operations Forces’ academia in Hamat in northern Lebanon.

The Lebanese army is expected to spearhead an upcoming offensive against ISIS militants in the coming days, Hezbollah has announced. The fighting is to take place near the town of Arsal on the Lebanon-Syria border. On Friday, Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, said in that the army was perfectly capable of winning that fight but offered his support should it be needed.
 
"The Syrian front line against ISIS will be opened, and the Syrian army and Hezbollah will be there," he said in a televised speech. He explained that the Lebanese army will attack ISIS from the Lebanese side of the border while Hezbollah and the Syrian army will simultaneously attack it from the Syrian side.

Lebanese state media said on Sunday afternoon that the army has captured a number of strategic hilltops from ISIS militants in the east of the country. The National News Agency reported that the army had captured several hills between the frontier towns of Ras Baalbek and Arsal.

The complex relationship between Lebanese governments and Hezbollah is something that foreigners often find baffling. "Both Lebanon and Hezbollah occupy a grey area: Lebanon isn't really a state, and Hezbollah isn't a terrorist group – or isn't only a terrorist group, depending on your view," said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, explaining the misperceptions.
 
"So the American tendency is either to treat Hezbollah as controlling the state of Lebanon, or to see Lebanon as a sovereign entity fighting a terrorist group. Both are false."
 
The Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri was formed in December following an extended paralysis and a presidential vacuum that lasted nearly three years.

Reuters contributed to this report.