BEIRUT — The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said on Wednesday that the group was close to defeating Nusra Front militants in the battle along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
“We are in the face of a very big military victory,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. The militants have “effectively lost” most of the land they held in the barren, mountainous border region of Juroud Arsal, he added.
As soon as the fighting ends, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah would be ready to hand over territory it has captured if the Lebanese army requests it, he said.
Hezbollah has made rapid advances since it launched an offensive with the Syrian army on Friday to drive militants from their last foothold along the frontier.
In the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Arsal, the operation has focused on the ex-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s former Syria branch. The next phase is expected to target a nearby enclave in the hands of ISIS militants.
The Lebanese army, a big recipient of U.S. and British military support, has not taken part in the offensive and has set up defensive positions around Arsal, which Nasrallah described as essential.
“There is seriousness, better than at any previous time,” Nasrallah said. But he added that militant demands remained unreasonable and that the Lebanese state, the Syrian government and Hezbollah must each agree to the terms.
Hezbollah has played a major role in fighting militants in the border region during the six-year Syrian war, along with its critical military support provided to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On the Syrian side of the border, Hezbollah fought “shoulder to shoulder” with the Syrian army around the town of Fleita in recent days and cleared the area of insurgents, Nasrallah said.
Security sources say some two dozen Hezbollah fighters have been killed overall, and nearly 150 militants.
Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian conflict has drawn criticism from its Lebanese political opponents, including Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.
During a state visit by Hariri this week, President Trump called Hezbollah a threat to Lebanon from within and a “menace” to the region.
Nasrallah said on Wednesday he would not respond to Trump’s comments in order “not to embarrass” the official Lebanese delegation to Washington.