American helicopters Thursday and Friday, March 23-24, dropped Kurdish and Arab fighters over a region west of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. Those forces quickly captured at least five villages and so cut jihadist concentrations in the northwestern Syria off from their Raqqa stronghold. DEBKAfile’s military sourcesreport this operation was the opening shot of the US-led campaign to isolate the Islamic State’s Syrian capital before storming it.
Raqqa’s liberation is not expected to encounter the same fierce ISIS resistance as the US-led Iraqi army is facing in Mosul. That is partly because the town has gradually emptied of fighting forces ever since ISIS chiefs saw that their time was running out. Instead, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his strategists, Iraqi ex-generals, effected a major U-turn: the jihadists fleeing the Syrian and Iraqi fronts, instead of heading for the ISIS bastions in Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria and Abu Kamal in western Iraqi Anbar province, were given new orders to head in the opposite direction for their next destination: Lebanon.
This is a radical change from their former orders to reassemble in the two towns, which straddle the Iraqi-Syrian border and have commanded the Al Qa’im crossing and ISIS supply routes ever since June 2014. Both towns are located in virtual desert regions through which any approaching enemies are visible from afar. Moreover, the dense vegetation of the Euphrates river banks and nearby forests are effective cover for surreptitious movements against aerial and satellite surveillance.
American and Iraqi intelligence agencies are sure that Al-Baghdad and his top lieutenants are hiding in one of the two towns or in a safe house between them. So why are they are ready to give up these strategic safe havens, after building them up for two years, and suddenly sending their fugitive fighters after new turf?,
- ISIS leaders see fresh prey in Lebanon’s weak government and army.
- Lebanon which is chronically beset with conflicts among the Sunni, Hizballah-Shiite and Christian communities offers a vulnerable playing field for ISIS inroads.
- Lebanon’s second largest town of Tripoli, 85km north of Beirut, a strongly Sunni city with a Mediterranean port, is one promising ISIS target.
- Another is Sidon, its third largest city, located 40km south of Beirut on the southern Mediterranean coast. An added advantage is its proximity to the Israeli border, no more than 60km north of Naharia, the closest the Islamic State has ever come to a Israeli town.
Adjoining Sidon, which has a core population of 90,000, is the Palestinian refugee camp-town of Ain Hilwa, among whose quarter of a million inmates ISIS has already planted cells – both overt and sleepers.
- ISIS leaders now conclude that their Iraqi-Syria border strongholds may prove too hard to secure when, according to their reckoning, they come under American or Russian guns. Foreign powers are less likely to intervene militarily to take on a terrorist organization in unstable Lebanon.
- They would gain a new vantage point for hitting Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces fighting in Syria from the rear.
American and Israeli intelligence services conveyed a warning to the new Lebanese President Michel Aoun earlier this month with details of the ISIS conspiracy to overrun parts of his country, as it did Iraq and Syria three years ago.