In August, two years after ISIS overran the border town of Arsal, storming military installations and killing nearly 20 soldiers, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) launched a major offensive aimed at dislodging the terrorist group from Lebanese soil. The multi-pronged assault, dubbed “Dawn of the Hills” (named for the mountainous region along the Syrian border), demonstrated the LAF’s ability to execute complex operations in rugged terrain.
Ten days before the offensive kicked off, the US Army Civil Affairs (CA) team in Lebanon and the LAF Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Directorate reached out to SoA. With the fighting likely to displace civilians, the LAF wanted to distribute food aid to those fleeing their homes. This was important for three reasons. First, it would show support for distressed families. Second, it would promote good governance. Finally, it would improve the LAF’s ability to carry out humanitarian operations and reinforce their role as the sole guarantor of security and stability in Lebanon.
On August 17th, I joined the CA team for a planning meeting at the CIMIC Directorate headquarters in Beirut. Brigadier General Abi Rached, the unit’s commanding officer, started things off with an overview of the security situation before handing the reigns to Major Hussein Choker who is in charge of CIMIC activities in eastern Lebanon. The major briefed the group on the upcoming operation and elaborated on the need to aid fleeing civilians, framing it as a humanitarian and security imperative. The sophisticated population-centric approach demonstrated the LAF’s maturity as a fighting force, underscoring the value of more than a decade of military-to-military engagement between the US and Lebanon. We concluded the meeting with an agreement on the way forward: SoA would provide 750 food baskets, and LAF commanders, working with local community leaders, would distribute the aid to displaced families.
On August 24th, five days after Dawn of the Hills formally began, as the regular Army units pounded ISIS terrorists in their mountainous hideouts, the CIMIC Directorate initiated a humanitarian operation to provide sustenance to three communities in Lebanon’s northeast: Labweh, Qaa, and Masharia Qaa.
The CIMIC supply convoy arrived in the Labweh municipal building just before 9:00 AM and began making the necessary preparations as residents started congregating. The soldiers were joined by Labweh’s mayor as well as the Mukhtar (head) of a nearby village. Upwards of 350 of the townspeople showed up for the food distribution. Many, including the mayor, were impressed to see the Army not just fighting terrorists but helping the population as well. In a region where armed forces are often used as a blunt tool to instill fear amongst civilians, the mild surprise was understandable.
Continuing on, the relief convoy arrived in Qaa, less than 15 miles north of Labweh, at 11:00 AM. Awaiting them was a throng of hundreds of residents from Arsal, where the fighting was taking place, as well as journalists and public officials, including the mayor of Zahle, to the south. The soldiers unloaded the food boxes and began distributing them, one by one, to the gathered families. Echoing earlier statements, Zahle’s mayor told the officers on the scene, “I’m happy to see the Army is coming to help the people of Qaa and not just here for the fighting; not only caring about the battle, but also caring for the citizens near the line of fire.”
After another short drive up the road, the troops made a final stop at Masharia Qaa, a sparsely populated hamlet with more fields than buildings. There, in one of the Lebanon’s most remote stretches, the soldiers distributed the last of the food boxes marking a fitting end to a dramatic day. The CIMIC Directorate not only served hundreds of Lebanese families in a time of need, they also helped transform how the region’s population, which, more often than not, interacts with soldiers on armed patrol and at checkpoints, perceived the Army. One of Qaa’s municipal officials succinctly expressed the welcome sentiment with typical Lebanese flourish: “This aid means that the Army didn’t forget the people who are standing beside it. It symbolizes that the Army and the people are one hand.”
Project Manager – Middle East