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ISIS-Nusra Clashes Resume Along Lebanese Border

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- At least seven militants were killed Friday in renewed clashes between Daesh (ISIS) and the Nusra Front along the Lebanese-Syrian border, a security source told The Daily Star, as the rift between the rival extremist groups continues to widen.

Daesh fighters seized a Nusra camp and position in the fierce fighting that claimed the lives of five Nusra and two Daesh gunmen.

A source familiar with Islamist groups said the battle was for control of strategic points in the hills of Syria's Qalamoun, which extend toward the outskirts of Lebanon's northeastern town of Arsal. The areas command part of the mountainous border region between Lebanon and Syria.

The information was confirmed through leaks to the media from the Nusra Front's top Qalamoun commander, Abu Malek al-Talleh.

Talleh accused Daesh of brokering a deal with the Syrian regime, handing the Syrian Army and Hezbollah a series of posts in return for allowing their fighters to withdraw toward Raqqa, the capital of Daesh's self-proclaimed caliphate.

This would allow large numbers fighters to head there without harassment, but would leave the Nusra Front isolated and exposed.

Earlier this week, a Lebanese security source told The Daily Star Nusra fighters had launched a surprise attack against Daesh along the border, sparking clashes that killed at least 13.

Daesh reportedly counterattacked, capturing four positions in the area. Friday's clashes, which took place in several locations in Qalamoun, left at least three Nusra militants dead according to the source.

Arsal Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri, who is close to Nusra, has been trying to mediate a truce to end the fighting, but so far has failed, he added.

The War Media Center, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, said late Thursday that the two sides had agreed to end the fighting. Nusra would hand over one of three crossings it controls east of Arsal in the deal and release a number of ISIS militants captured during the clashes.

The resurgence of fighting Friday suggests the agreement may have failed to materialize.

The source familiar with Islamist groups would not confirm the Nusra Front's story of Daesh's alleged deal with the Syrian government.

Daesh's convoys would have to travel a long way from Qalamoun to reach Raqaa, and could be vulnerable to airstrikes from Russian warplanes, according the source.

The prevalent theory is that both groups are competing on the ground to extend their influence and prove their capabilities as a new round of Syrian peace talks begins in Geneva.

The source stressed that smuggler's crossings between Lebanon and Syria have become strategic points for Daesh. They are the only viable crossings into Syria as the group is being subjected to severe bombardment along the the border with Iraq and the Turkish border is becoming increasingly difficult to infiltrate.

Therefore Daesh will not allow the Nusra Front control the Lebanese-Syrian border areas without a fight.

In August 2014, militants from both groups overran Arsal and fought together against the Lebanese Army in a five-day battle. The fighting left dozens dead before the military was able to drive them out.

The two groups took over 30 Lebanese servicemen hostage as they withdrew.

Nusra released the 16 servicemen it was holding in December, after a swap was negotiated with the Lebanese government involving the release of Islamists from Lebanese and Syrian prisons. Daesh is still holding nine servicemen, and the source said the group may again try to prove its capabilities in the field through surprise attacks and other actions. "Daesh has tightened its grip on the issue of the remaining servicemen it holds hostage, and did not extend the lines of negotiations like Nusra," the source said. "But it reconsidered its steps when it [saw] the high price that Nusra paid when it raised its banners in Arsal and its outskirts, and forced the Lebanese government to deal with it."

Daesh does not have a clear military or organizational structure in Lebanon, according the source. It has not assigned an emir for the Islamic Emirate of Lebanon. Daesh's field commander in Qalamoun is Abu al-Sous; Abu Tareq is second in command.

Little is known about Abu al-Sous, who is believed to hold either Syrian, Iraqi, or Jordanian citizenship. Abu Tareq is Lebanese, and gives the orders to fighters on the ground.

It has accepted other groups' allegiance, but has worked to direct them toward Syria, particularly the Raqqa province, before spreading them across other areas under its control. The source said that desertions from other groups have never stopped, though they have abated of late.

Members of other groups affiliated with Daesh must swear their allegiance -- most of them are then smuggled into Syria. One such individual is Mohammad Eya'aly, also known as Abu al-Baraa. He is reportedly in central Syria's Al-Qaryatayn, from where he trying to form sleeper cells in Lebanon.

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