BEIRUT: Lebanon’s political leaders Monday emphasized their undying support for the Lebanese Army, currently battling Islamist militants who crossed from Syria, but at least one politician accused the Army of collusion with Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri came out strongly in favor of the Army’s operations in Arsal, calling on it to liberate the northeastern Bekaa Valley town from the Islamist groups that had taken it hostage.
“There is no place for the takfiri and terrorist organizations, and there will be no leniency with its destructive mission, which is alien to the people of moderation and tolerance,” Hariri said in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper.
The former premier said the Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces were red lines for the Future Movement, which did not tolerate takfiri groups.
“Is this how the favor is returned to the people of Arsal, who hosted their brethren seeking refuge from Syria and didn’t hold back any support they could give them?” Hariri asked. “Have they been rewarded by being turned into hostages because they said no to these groups?”
Three days of fighting in Arsal has taken the lives of 14 soldiers, with 22 missing. At least 12 civilians have also been killed, along with some 50 militants. Sixteen national police have also been kidnapped.
But Akkar MP and Future Movement member Khaled Daher struck a different note, accusing the Lebanese Army of shelling Arsal alongside “Hezbollah militias.”
“If the shelling does not stop we will take to the streets all over Lebanon, because anyone who shells Arsal is a war criminal and an accomplice of the Syrian and Iranian regimes who seeks to become president [by spilling] the blood of Sunnis,” Daher said in an apparent reference to Army Chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi. “I say to my people and to Sunnis, we are with the Army if the Army is with us, and not under Hezbollah’s control.”
Head of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt said the battle for Arsal was a matter of destiny, and offered veiled criticism for voices such as Daher’s.
“What is needed is for us to remain on high alert and recognize that the battle in Lebanon has become an existential battle, and too big to be merely a battle of interests,” Jumblatt said in a statement.
Jumblatt said that politicians who blame Hezbollah for the current situation and “are creating a political front to attack the Army” should recognize that such behavior jeopardizes what he described as the “foundations of the Lebanese entity,” which rest on moderation and diversity.
The PSP leader praised Hariri’s support for the Army especially in this critical phase of history, indirectly criticizing other members of the Future Movement.
“Some of the voices are irresponsible and place the Army and Lebanon at great risk instead of searching for means to strengthen the atmosphere of unity among the Lebanese,” he said.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea also spoke about the clashes in the northeastern town, announcing his party’s “full backing of the Lebanese Army in its fight against the foreign, terrorist militants.”
Offering his condolences to the families of soldiers who were killed in the fighting, Geagea asked the government to request that the U.N. Security Council expand the mandate of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
“We call on the Cabinet to immediately ask the Security Council to expand the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, particularly article 12 that would allow the council to deploy international troops [along the border],” he said in a statement.
“It would help Lebanon strengthen its sovereignty on all of its territory and protect civilians at risk of violence,” Geagea said.
Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah official, pledged to support the Lebanese Army in its battle against Islamist militants in northeast Lebanon, saying the party and citizens were ready to defend the country.
“We will not leave the Army alone and we all back the Army, whose blood is mixed with citizens confronting the Israeli aggression and in defense of Lebanon and its independence,” he said.
“Whoever threatens to divide the Army and defect from it, we say that neither Lebanon or Bekaa is Mosul,” he continued, referring to Iraq’s northern city, which has been overrun by militants with the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. “We will not allow for our mosques or churches to be destroyed and we will defend them with all our might, we will not hesitate to do so.”
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil appealed for immediate military support for the Army at the opening of an emergency meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran.
“Lebanon appeals to you to stand by its side and asks for immediate [military] assistance for its Army in order to confront takfiri terrorism,” he said.
Outgoing Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Asiri also expressed solidarity with the Army during farewell visits he made to Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Speaker Nabih Berri and former President Michel Sleiman.
“I have expressed sympathy with Lebanon in the face of [security] challenges, and wish for stability and well-being, as well as unity of all political forces, in order to be able to deal with the latest developments,” Asiri said after visiting Salam.
Asked to comment on the three-day fighting in Arsal, Asiri said: “May God protect Lebanon.”
The European Union’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Angelina Eichhorst, discussed the situation in Arsal during a meeting with Kahwagi.
“The EU denounces the death, injury and abduction of civilians, military and security forces, which cannot be justified and require a strong and united response,” Eichhorst said.
“The EU calls for the release of those who have been abducted,” the envoy added.
Tobias Ellwood, Britain’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, also blasted the attack on the military.
“I urge a swift end to the fighting that started over the weekend. I send my condolences to the Lebanese government and the families of the victims of this violence,” Ellwood said in a statement.
“The United Kingdom remains as determined as ever to back stability in Lebanon and is committed to assisting the Lebanese Armed Forces in enhancing security in the border regions,” he added.
Meanwhile, acting U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Ross Mountain deplored the attack on the Army, reiterating that the U.N. was committed to the country’s security and military.