Center for Strategic Communication

Last month, Syrian government forces near Qalamoun and Lebanese forces near Arsal had essentially cornered a large number of Islamist fighters in the area. Tensions erupted in Lebanon in early August, when fighting broke out around the Arsal between the Islamists and the Lebanese Army. Before long, a delegation of Salafist clerics from Lebanon’s Muslim Scholars Committee appeared on the scene to mediate a ceasefire.

The fighting was allegedly triggered by the Aug. 2 arrest of Imad Ahmad Jomaa, an Al Nusrah Front commander who had recently sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. On Aug. 4, following three days of clashes with Islamist militants around Arsal, the Lebanese army said 14 soldiers had been killed, 86 wounded, and 22 were missing; at least 50 civilians and some 50 militants were also said to have been killed, including Abu Hasan al Homsi, an Islamic State commander. The government vowed to protect Arsal, demanding the militants’ withdrawal and refusing to cut a deal.

But soon a delegation from the Muslim Scholars Committee (MSC) traveled to Arsal to negotiate a truce; the government sought the release of 22 soldiers and 21 policemen kidnapped by the militants, and the Islamists wanted the release of Jomaa, who commands brigades affiliated with the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State.

Sheikh Salem al Rafehi, the imam of Tripoli’s the Al-Taqwa Mosque and a member of the MSC tasked with negotiating the ceasefire, was wounded when the committee’s convoy was reportedly attacked by gunmen on the night of Aug. 4 . Naharnet News reported that the “[t]he three-member Muslim Scholars Committee delegation” had arrived in Arsal after coming under fire; al Rafehi was said to have received a foot injury and the other two, Sheikhs Nabil al Halabi and Jalal Kalash, had received only minor wounds. Muslim Scholars Committee member Sheikh Ihab al Banna said the delegation was “seeking to reach a permanent ceasefire in the area.”

On Aug. 6, a ceasefire had been reached; Abou Talal, the deputy of Imad Jomaa, was involved in negotiations. Al Nusrah Front and Islamic State fighters began withdrawing from Arsal, after releasing six kidnapped Lebanese security forces; but the militants still held 17 ISF personnel and 10 soldiers, according to the MSC. Although thousands of refugees had fled the fighting, some 32,000 Lebanese and 50,000 Syrians remained in Arsal.

The truce reportedly allowed most of the roughly 2,000 Islamist fighters to leave the town; a large convoy of Syrian refugees also left. Al Nusrah said that the security forces it was still holding have a “special status.”

On Aug. 7, Sheikh Muhieddine Nisbeh, a member of the MSC negotiating party, claimed that the militants with the hostages had “exited Arsal into some mountainous area” and that the committee had lost contact with them.

Sheikh Adnan Amama, another MSC member, said on Aug. 8 that the militants were seeking assurance that the large Syrian refugee camps in Arsal remain “safe,” among other demands. The ceasefire allowed the Army to deploy in Arsal on Aug. 8 after the bulk of some 2,000 militants, mainly from the Al Nusrah Front but also including Islamic State fighters, had begun withdrawing on Aug. 6. Residents began returning to Arsal on Aug. 8, and security was stepped up in the town.

Reports said that the Al Nusrah Front militants had left town and the Islamic State militants had crossed over into Syria. The militants were said to be holding at least 35 Lebanese security forces captive, divided between Al Nusrah and IS. MSC member Sheikh Samih Ezzedine confirmed that the hostages had been divided among several militant groups. The militants were said to be demanding the release of 20 Islamist prisoners, including Imad Ahmad Jomaa.

On Aug. 10, MSC member Sheikh Younis Abdel Razzak reportedly claimed that negotiations for the release of some 35 kidnapped Lebanese security forces were progressing, but that his committee is not dealing directly with the kidnappers.

[This video clip of Lebanon’s Muslim Scholars Committee appears to show at least 10 men.]

Reactions to the Muslim Scholars Committee’s negotiating role

On Aug. 8, a video clip on Monitor Mideast showed former Lebanese minister Wiam Wihab walking out of a telephone interview on Al-Jadeed TV with a cleric from the MSC, which is described as “Saudi-backed.” According to the report:

The cleric, identified as Amin Raad, sought to dismiss claims that the MSC is pro-terrorist and pro-ISIS. The Scholars Committee of Lebanon has been under fire lately due to their Saudi backing. During a deal last week brokered by Saudi Arabia, the Grand Mufti of the Committee was ultimately selected after a long-standing feud among various clergymen.

Last week, a number of Saudi-backed Sunni clerics were dispatched to Arsal, Lebanon during clashes between the Lebanese Army (LAF) and ISIS. They sought to mediate between the two sides over a possible ceasefire. However, Saudi Arabia is often accused as a key sponsor of ISIS by various Lebanese political factions. Among them, Wiam Wahhab remains an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia’s government and its role in Lebanon.

The Daily Star also covered the incident, noting that after walking out, Wahhab later accused the MSC of having links to Hassan Qatorji, whose deputy is Abu Omar al Homsi, a detained Al Nusrah commander, and charged that the MSC had allowed the kidnapped security personnel to be smuggled out.

Interestingly, the Muslim Scholars Committee’s negotiations were commended by the Syrian National Coalition, in an official statement on Aug. 8, which said, in part:

Hadi Al Bahra, president of the Syrian Coalition, hails efforts made to defuse the crisis in Arsal, home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. A 24-hour truce was put into effect early on the morning of today, allowing the withdrawal of the militant groups into Syria and the entry of the Red Cross team to evacuate the wounded and deliver relief aid to the town. The truce was brokered through a committee of the residents of Arsal, the Muslim Scholars Association and the Red Cross, who will guarantee that no armed forces will enter the town, and that the Lebanese armed forces are the only side whose task will be restoring security and stability.

Moreover, we have reached out to the Association of Muslim Scholars, which formed a committee entrusted with reaching a solution that guarantees the safety of Syrian refugees and Lebanese civilians. The committee included several organizations, including life humanitarian organizations, Syrian activists and representatives the revolutionary movement. The committee worked relentlessly on defusing the crisis, and they even risked their lives while trying to enter the besieged the town. Some of its members were injured when their vehicles came under fire on its way to the town.”

Islamic scholar organizations in Lebanon, Iraq

The Muslim Scholars Committee in Lebanon is headed by Salafist cleric Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the Arsal negotiating delegation who has run a school and mosque in the village of Majdal Anjar in the Bekaa Valley. In late January, Amama expressed displeasure that a delegation from his organization was not allowed to visit detained Sunni cleric Sheikh Omar al Atrash, who had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in car bombings in Beirut as well as funneling Arab suicide bombers to the Al Nusrah Front in Syria.

In late June, Sheikh Nabil Rahim, another member of the MSC negotiating committee in Arsal, protested what his organization saw as the Lebanese government’s harshness towards Lebanese Islamist fighters in Syria compared to its treatment of Hezbollah members who crossed over the border to fight.

In late July, the Muslim Scholars Committee called for protests in support of Sunni militants imprisoned in Tripoli, including Sheikh Hussam al Sabbagh, who was arrested on July 20 and has previously been accused of heading al Qaeda in Tripoli. One of the speakers at the demonstrations was Sheikh Mustafa Alloush, Tripoli head of of Jamaa al-Islamiya.

Lebanon’s Muslim Scholars Committee is most likely linked to other similar organizations in various countries, including Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars (AMSI) and the International Association of Muslim Scholars.

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq is headed by Harith al Dari, who was added to the US and UN’s list of global terrorists in 2010 for his support of al Qaeda in Iraq. In the designation, Treasury stated that al Dari “provides financial, material, or technological support and financial or other services to or in support of AQI including operational guidance for attacks against Iraqi Forces and Coalition Forces in Iraq.” Two years earlier, in September 2008, he was designated by Treasury for fueling violence in Iraq. He had previously called al Qaeda in Iraq’s front group, the Mujahideen Shura Council, “part of the legitimate resistance.”

Two months ago, Al Dari’s pro-Sunni, anti-government, “pro-resistance” Rafidayn TV channel was shut down by the Iraqi government, on June 18, according to the BBC. The day before, the BBC ran an article noting that Rafidayn’s reporting was describing the Sunni militants in Iraq as “tribal revolutionaries” without mentioning ISIS, and that it highlighted losses inflicted on government troops, and called the conflict “Maliki’s war against the people.”

In July, another BBC report noted, however, that Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars, “which gives political guidance to the non-ISIS rebels,” criticized the Islamic State for announcing its caliphate, and that AMSI had said: “”Those who announced [the calipate] did not consult the sons of Iraq, or their leaders …. It is not in the interest of Iraq and its unity now, and will be taken as an excuse to partition the country and harm the people. The prerequisites for success need to be prepared – failure will rebound on everybody. None of this has been done, so the oath of allegiance and this situation are not binding on anyone.'”

On Aug. 9, AMSI “severely denounced” the US recent airstrikes in Iraq as a “dangerous development” and omitted any mention that the strikes were targeting the Islamic State. According to a translation of AMSI’s statement by the SITE Intelligence Group, the organization concluded its message by blaming Iraq’s current chaos on the “American occupation.”

Back in late 2007, Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars disparaged the “declaration of principles” reached by US and Iraqi leaders for enduring military, political, and economic ties after the UN mandate on foreign troops in Iraq expired. AMSI said the Iraqi signatories would be considered “collaborators with the occupier.”

There is also an International Association of Muslim Scholars. In October 2008, Hamas official and International Association of Muslim Scholars spokesman Marwan Abu Ras defended the decision of a Palestinian woman to become a suicide bomber for Islamic Jihad, saying that although “‘Islam prohibits you from harming yourself … now we are fighting a war of resistance. If one nation violates another nation’s land, it is the obligation of everyone – men, women, and children – to fight back.'”

Another member of the international association, influential Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman al-Awda, said in September 2009 that although praying for the destruction of the unbelievers runs against sharia law generally, it is permissible if they are harming Muslim interests.

The outlook

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon appears to contain members who are sympathetic to the Islamic State, as well as others who are not. A June 24 article in Al Monitor profiled several members of Lebanon’s Salafist community, including Sheikh Malek Jadida, president of the Lebanese organization, who said the practices of ISIS “‘have nothing to do with Islam.'”

But the Lebanese group’s former president, Salem al Rafehi, who is currently a member of the MSC’s negotiating committee in Arsal, claimed: “So Iraq is witnessing a revolution of the Sunnis, and of course there is a role for the ISIS organization. But it is not the major force in what is happening compared with the role of the tribes, the rebels and the other participants. The media, however, is focusing on this organization to eliminate everybody’s role and to portray Iraq’s Sunnis as extremists and terrorists. And this is part of the great conspiracy against the Sunnis in the Arab region as a whole.”

A recent article by Jean Aziz in Al Monitor observes that the ceasefire in Arsal mediated by the Salafist sheikhs’ committee, which has left the fate of 39 Lebanese security forces to their Islamist captors and allowed hundreds of Islamist fighters to escape to the hillsides around Arsal, merely marks the end of “the first round of a longer war.”

Lebanese army chief General Jean Kahwagi disclosed on Aug. 11 that the Islamic State had planned to use Arsal as a base for attacks Shiite villages, igniting sectarian war and bringing the strife of Iraq to Lebanon, and warned that the terror group presents a “great threat” to his country.

The MSC negotiating committee has now handed the Lebanese government a video showing seven of the captive Lebanese soldiers. Radio reports say that the Islamic State is holding seven captive soldiers and that Al Nusrah is holding nine. Sheikh Amama of the MSC is describing the negotiations as “tough.”

Who knows what further concessions the negotiators will seek to extract for their Islamist clients. Indeed, it is unlikely that any deals with the Islamic State will serve to protect Lebanon from its relentless drive.