BEIRUT: Former Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn admitted Sunday that an unspoken compromise had allowed Sunni extremist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir to escape from last year’s clashes between his supporters and the Army in Sidon, and said that Al-Qaeda has been in Lebanon for years.
“It didn’t occur in the same way as Arsal’s compromise,” Ghosn said in a TV interview with Al-Jadeed. “It was not part of a whole plan ... but Assir’s back was secured so that he could escape.”
The clashes between Assir's militia and Army troops in Sidon in June 2013 killed 18 soldiers and around 40 of Assir’s combatants. The Army was able to arrest a further 40 suspects, who are still detained in Jezzine, south Lebanon, awaiting their trials.
Assir was the imam of the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Abra, near which the clashes occurred, and a radical critic of Hezbollah’s policies.
Refusing to give more details about the compromise that took place, the former minister said that “pressure” was exerted on Lebanese authorities to allow Assir’s escape.
With a hesitative tone, Ghosn explained how delicate the situation in Lebanon is, and how political and security decisions are subject to numerous influences.
“As you know, we live in Lebanon, and Lebanon is fragile and difficult,” he said. “To be able to work in Lebanese politics, you should have the assertiveness and the flexibility, as well as the delicacy at the same time.”
Ghosn stressed that Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and militants have been in Lebanon since 2011, when as defense minister he called on the country’s different parties to unite on providing the Army with the “necessary political cover” to eradicate all terrorist individuals.
“Now, the individuals have become groups,” he said, “and it has become irrelevant to discuss whether Al-Qaeda exists anymore.”
He criticized the compromise that led to the withdrawal of militants from Arsal, especially seeing as they took abducted soldiers with them.
“The outcome was not as we wanted it to be,” Ghosn said, expressing fear that the militants could use the captives to exhaust the Army in the long term.