Lebanon: Army fights without the cover of the Future Movement

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Lebanese army soldiers drive out of the town of Arsal in the Bekaa valley near the border with Syria, on August 3, 2014. (Photo: AFP-STR)

Published Monday, August 4, 2014

The Lebanese army is fighting the war to prevent the establishment of an emirate belonging to the Islamic State in Ersal. However, until yesterday, the military establishment had not received the necessary cover from political factions for the battle, which will shape the future and survival of the whole country.

By the early hours of Monday morning, the Association for Muslim Scholars had failed to reach an agreement for a "humanitarian truce" between the Lebanese army and the terrorist factions occupying the town of Ersal in northeastern Lebanon. As the negotiations faltered, several martyrs fell on the Lebanese army side while defending positions under attack by fighters from ISIS, later joined by al-Nusra Front, attempting their capture. The last martyrs on Sunday were two lieutenants, rumored to have been brutally killed.

However, the military establishment seemed to be without a "political cover" in the battle, which promises to spread to the rest of the country, up until the press conference held by army commander General Jean Kahwaji on Sunday. The conference was unprecedented for an army commander, at least since the 1990 Taif agreement [which put an end to the Lebanese civil war].

Kahwaji addressed the country’s politicians, but not as an authority to which the army is accountable. He warned them of the possibility that what is happening in Ersal could spread to other areas in Lebanon. The reasons for not mentioning the authorities were soon apparent, when it was leaked that Prime Minister Tammam Salam was heading efforts to reach a ceasefire.

The head of the executive authority is acting as a broker between his country's army and terrorists, which occupy a part of this country, threatening its people with slaughter and beheading. Salam did not deny the news. However, it later appeared that the mediation was actually being conducted by Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi.

The retired general – who continues to boast about refusing to negotiate with Fatah al-Islam terrorists in 2007 – made a series of contacts with forces believed to have some sway with ISIS fighters on the one hand, and the Lebanese army, on the other. He proposed a ceasefire to be set between 4 pm and 6 pm yesterday, but the army command said that it will not stop its operations until the release of the 13 soldiers and 22 Internal Security Forces officers, who were captured. The army also stated as one its conditions that the fighters with-draw into Syria and not merely to Lebanese mountains.

The army was not betting on the wisdom of ISIS, but exhausting all available options to spare the people of Ersal. "We know they occupied the town, but we did not shell their positions inside," a military source explained. "Some houses on the outskirts of town were damaged, but they had been empty from civilians and used by ISIS to attack army positions and checkpoints. However, the army did not shell armed positions inside Ersal. Even when information was obtained about a meeting of takfiri groups on August 2, we did not target them due to concern about civilian life."

In the first phase, the army aims to recover all its positions and checkpoints, in addition to recapturing its barracks, which were occupied by the gunmen, and bringing in reinforcements. This was achieved on Sunday night.

On the side of the army commander's press conference, officers were describing "the hardihood of our officers and soldiers in defending their positions. In Wadi Hmayyed, one officer defended his position alone, after his comrades were martyred or injured, until the airborne division arrived at dawn on Sunday."

In contrast to the reality on the ground, politicians failed to support the army. Some Future Movement MPs and officials were on the verge of defending ISIS. Their allies in Jamaa Islamiya went as far as referring to ISIS detainee Imad Jouma as a "Syrian dissident" and objected to his arrest, in a statement read by its deputy Imad al-Hout.

ISIS and al-Nusra Front used the arrest of Jouma to implement their plans. According to Kahwaji, they intended to occupy Ersal by controlling military and security positions around the town in the next 48 hours. In this regard, Kahwaji's statements coincided with the confessions of the detainee, concerning ISIS schemes for Ersal. This information was obtained by security officials close to the Future Movement, as some of them maintained to Al-Akhbar.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri had called Kahwaji and maintained his support for the army "until the end; we are with you in whatever you do." Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the gunmen to withdraw from Lebanon. However, their statements were quickly negated by their subordinates in the Future Movement.

Justice Minister Rifi spoke about the futility of military and security solutions in Ersal and called for a political resolution (with ISIS and al-Nusra Front). The three MPs from North Lebanon – Mohammed Kabbara, Khaled al-Daher, and Mouin Merhebi – lambasted the army. The Future Movement seemed to be split in half: moderates (between the army and ISIS) and ISIS supporters.

However, the security meeting held by the government in the Grand Serail put an end to Rifi's "mediation" attempts. Supreme Council of Defense Secretary General General Mohammed Kheir was delegated to make all the necessary contacts to protect civilians in Ersal.

But does this means the government chose Rifi's option for a political solution with ISIS and al-Nusra? A participant in the meeting disagreed. "The military operation should continue and the Future Movement will only stand by the army," he told Al-Akhbar. "However, in parallel to the military operation, we will be contacting everyone, even the devils, to prevent bloodshed."

On the other hand, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk maintained that "the army is our only option," replying to questions about the Future Movement's real position on the situation in Ersal. "Those who say the opposite only speak for themselves," he added. Sources inside the movement said that it's leader, Hariri, is expected to announce a clear position in the next few hours, maintaining his support for the army.

But what about the Saudis? "Do you need more than King Abdullah's position?" replied the same sources. "Let's wait, there might be a position announced by its cabinet today." However, Saudi Arabia has remained silent about the situation in Lebanon, much like the majority of Arab countries. On the other hand, US Ambassador to Lebanon David Hill paid a visit to general Kahwaji and informed him of "his country's support for the army in the battle against terrorism."

Military sources refused to disclose what the army is planning following the first phase. However, they maintain that the situation after Ersal will not be the same as before.

"For the past three years, the army had been calling for a framework to deal with the security crisis caused by Syrian refugees in Lebanon," the sources said. "The United Nations built two refugee camps in Ersal's mountainside for Syrian refugees, without governmental supervision. Both camps are today are basis for takfiri attacks against the army. We did not look closely at many other things in the past, but we will not turn a blind eye after today."

In contrast to the convoluted positions of the Future Movement, several forces and personalities, most notably Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah, and MP Walid Jumblatt expressed their absolute support for the army.

On the other hand, Hezbollah replied to the press conference held by MPs Kabbara, Merhebi, and Daher. Its MP Ali al-Mokdad completely denied "any connection between Hezbollah and the situation in Ersal or any interference in the events. The protection of Ersal from takfiri terrorism and outlaw groups and its safeguarding and the lives of its people and families is the responsibility of the Lebanese state and its intrepid national army and security forces. It is also the responsibility of political forces to save this Lebanese town from the clutches of its aggressors."

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Where's my comment?

If i would be the director of the newspaper and the assumption "Justice Minister Rifi spoke about the futility of military and security solutions in Ersal and called for a political resolution (with ISIS and al-Nusra Front)" it would be fully verified as true, i would write EVERYDAY how shameful is this person for his country till he resigns. It is such a contradictory and unacceptable behaviour for a state representative to bargain with violent outlaws (especially towards the families of those soldiers who gave their life) that it let you feel cry "VENDETTA".

I stopped reading when I got to Hariri, Siniora, and the rest of the Future Movement leadership. "I get the picture". And I assume that the rest of the article will not supply the rest of "the picture", which is that the king of Saudi Arabia, so-called, is the actual head of the Future Movement in Lebanon. "Stands to reason," "connect the dots."
I went ahead and read the rest.
"Do you need more than King Abdullah's position?" replied the same sources.
I don't understand that part.
The gist of the article is that Lebanon's rightful government, Hezbullah, dependent as it is on the will of the majority of Lebanese, the Shiites majority, has not launched operations against the takfiris occupying Ersal.
I agree with that decision. Hezbullah's future, and the future of Lebanon (no puns intended), is in civil rights, one-person/one-vote, majority-rule, instead of Hezbullah rescuing the nation periodically while bearing the addition burden of demonization: a role which it manages only by being so effective as a military force.
It is time for Hezbullah to say to the people of Lebanon: if you want our help, give us the mandate in the ballot box.

Well said Chris

Thanks, and to the publishers: it took them a while, but they published my comment (see my nudge up above).

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