Lines of the Game: Crucial Showdown Between Lebanese Army and Al-Qaeda

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Lebanese army soldiers patrol a street in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on December 4, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Ibrahim Chalhoub).

By: Sami Kleib

Published Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The latest development in the lines of the global game saw Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Iran. This is an important point in the context of the desired understanding between Washington and Tehran. A close monitoring of this issue is needed to know the conflicts and hotbeds of tension in the region, including the situation in Lebanon, which suggests an inevitable clash between the Lebanese army and al-Qaeda. But how?

Iran and Afghanistan have common borders exceeding 1,000 kilometers, and more than one million Afghan refugees live in Iran. The two countries also have common tribes.

The expected US military withdrawal from Afghanistan should be completed by the end of next year. US President Barack Obama's administration is looking for a safe exit from Afghan soil and a security agreement. Tehran wants to see all foreign forces out of the region, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reiterated this week. It does not want the agreement to impact Iran's regional security.

There is also a desire in the United States for a contribution by Rouhani to the security agreement and the safe exit of US forces from Afghanistan. The Iranian president might not object, in return for some provisions. If the deal is finalized, it would be one of the key points in the understanding between the two sides. Anything else would mean that the Iran-US understanding still needs some tightening.

However, it seems that things are moving toward resolution, not escalation, at least from what the US president said Saturday, December 7, about the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Two days prior to Karzai's arrival in Tehran, the Iranian leadership was saying goodbye to Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki and his delegation. The visit had culminated in a meeting between the Iraqi guest and Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The discussions revolved in part around broadening the framework of cooperation by a series of contacts between Iranian diplomacy and several neighboring Gulf countries. And as soon as Maliki's visit was concluded, the bombings in Iraq increased.

Throughout all this activity, the Iranian leadership avoided criticizing its Saudi neighbor. Quite the opposite, Iran's tone remained within the context of opening lines of communication with Riyadh. Iran and Turkey also took steps forward in the rapprochement between the two countries, awaiting Rouhani's visit to Ankara next month.

This leaves Lebanon and Syria as the two remaining arenas of conflict with the Saudis. The most serious escalation came this time from Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. In his latest appearance on television with Jean Aziz, Nasrallah mentioned the kingdom five times.

The accusations were too serious and important to be mere accusations. They suggested that Nasrallah is preparing for something. Iran's main ally in the region did not forget to say that Saudi Arabia has been treating Iran as an enemy for the past 30 years. What does this accusation mean? Maybe he meant to be ambiguous.

Some of the takfiris supported by Saudi intelligence, according to Nasrallah's accusations, are now in Lebanon. Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel confirmed the presence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which threatened to eliminate him. However, he mentioned this one and a half years after the repeated warnings of Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn against the threat of al-Qaeda. However, all he got back then was criticism for his statements.

Various accounts, reports, and intelligence information have been obtained about this threat. But what will the Lebanese army do?

A few days ago, head of the National Struggle Bloc Walid Jumblatt created a stir by calling for the Information Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces to be put under the command of the Lebanese army. Did he want to bury the strife or is he merely mad at the Saudis?

Another surprise came from General Ashraf Rifi and the Consultative Meeting in Tripoli. They said the security of the state should be safeguarded by legitimate weapons and that they will not cover any illegitimate weapons, whether as an action or a reaction.

This leaves Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji with two bitter options, the best of which is the call to impose order and safeguard the state's prestige. In this case, he has to start the battle with the takfiris. But it will not be limited to those in North Lebanon.

There is a report on one of the Palestinian refugee camps, which claims that coordination and meetings are taking place with some al-Qaeda members from Syria. There are rumors of hit-lists and car bombs.

Similar stories abound about other areas like Shebaa, west Bekaa, and Ersal, maybe even Tariq al-Jdideh in Beirut. Nobody knows the real situation. The work of takfiri groups is often intricate and complicated. But what is certain is that it is not limited to one location.

Kahwaji enjoys a Western cover in addition to the one provided by Damascus. He has not replied to all of Syria's demands, but Damascus did not lose hope in him taking action against armed fighters infiltrating through Lebanon. In any case, they prefer him to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

But will he act? Will he be able to face other local and Saudi pressure, asking him to put a stop to Hezbollah's activities in Syria? Didn't Suleiman say, "Any weapons outside the state regime and its unified decision will become a tool for struggle over power and hegemonyā€¯?

The army might find itself caught between an international desire for its participation in the regional war on terror and others who want to transfer the regional wars into Lebanon. In both cases, a clash is imminent.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


The elephant in the room is the Lebanese Army. Al-Qaeda militants are better trained and more ideological. The Lebanese Army given it's past performance will probably fail miserably. The last time they fought seriously in Nahr al Bared. They fought militants who didn't have the type of weapons and experience that jihadis now days do. Take a look at the Sidon clashes. The number of casualties they take compared to the number of enemies they kill.If the Syrian Army lost that many soldiers the war would be over by now.

The jihadists in the region have been fighting against the Syrian Army for two years. Last winter during the rebel Damascus offensive. Hundreds of badly trained conscript soldiers died when the rebels attacked. The Republican Guard had to be sent in. The Syrian Army has learnt from it's mistake and has been training up their soldiers.

I highly doubt the Lebanese Army is up to scratch. Considering also the fact that the Syrian Army is utterly loyal to political leaders after the defections removed most of the unloyal soldiers. The Lebanese Army on the other hand is a fragile Army which has shown impotence when it comes to dealing with Tripoli. How would the soldiers react if the war was painted in religious terms as it obviously will?

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