HERMEL/BEIRUT: On high alert, Lebanon stood poised to head off any spillover from the violence in Iraq, with politicians across the spectrum calling for the country to be insulated from the impact of the jihadist offensive there.
Lebanese political and security authorities are carefully eyeing dramatic developments in Iraq, and have adopted a series of preventive measures to avoid ripples of the conflict being felt here, security sources told The Daily Star.
The Lebanese Army continued patrols through the weekend that began Friday near the border with Syria in search of gunmen and terror suspects, the sources said.
Speaking to The Daily Star Sunday, an Army source said that Lebanon had not yet felt the impact of the developments in Iraq, adding that the security situation remains “under control.” He added that the raids along the border with Syria were ongoing.
The source, who requested anonymity, denied media reports that the Army had beefed up its security measures around Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Tight security measures that the Army began taking across Lebanon over the past few months are still in place, they said.
The Lebanese Army Friday arrested six Syrian terror suspects during the raids in the Bekaa Valley.
The National News Agency reported that Lebanese Army soldiers manning a checkpoint in Wadi Ata in Arsal opened fire Sunday evening on a car traveling from Syria when the driver failed to stop for inspection. The driver and the two passengers, who were armed, fled on foot.
Gunmen who fled the Rankous area in Syria, where regime forces are tightening their grip, have escaped to the hills and valleys that separate Lebanon from its larger, embattled neighbor.
The security sources said the Army operations were stepped up in the wake of increased killings and kidnappings in the area, in addition to worries that the advance of Sunni jihadists in Iraq affiliated with the extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will galvanize extremists in Lebanon and boost their morale.
The security sources said the fleeing gunmen from Rankous ambushed a Hezbollah force earlier this week, killing six of its members.
“In addition to the attack on Hezbollah, the fleeing fighters have carried out several kidnap-for-ransom operations to secure money for their livelihoods,” one source said. “This has prompted the army to carry out a pre-emptive operation to limit the infiltration of fighters into Lebanese territories.”
Last week, laborers in the majority-Christian town of Ras Baalbek were kidnapped.
Two Syrian camps in the border town of Arsal – a favorite refuge spot for fighters coming from Syria – are currently under the close watch of the Lebanese Army, the source added.
A security source told The Daily Star that the crackdown in the hills and valleys surrounding Arsal and the Syrian border coincided with the Syrian army shelling the areas on its side of the border.
While the Lebanese and Syrian military are not directly coordinating their operations on the border, both are cooperating with Hezbollah.
Lebanese concerns over the events in Iraq stem from the fact that ISIS and other Al-Qaeda-linked groups claimed responsibility for a string of recent deadly car bombings and suicide attacks on areas where Hezbollah enjoys broad support, in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley region, in response to the party’s military intervention in Syria.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle called for Lebanon to be protected from the events in Iraq.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk told Al-Mustaqbal daily that Prime Minister Tammam Salam should head a Higher Security Council meeting to discuss the repercussions, adding that preventive measures were necessary.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi over the weekend also called for unity among Lebanese officials, warning of the repercussions for the entire region, especially Lebanon.
“What is happening in Iraq is very dangerous,” he said. “What we are witnessing today is a major development at the level of the region and its repercussions could affect Arab countries in general and Lebanon in particular.”
“Lebanese officials should be aware of what is going on and seek to avoid the fires of the region within the country. We should work together to get through this difficult phase,” Rifi said.
Hezbollah also warned of the local repercussions of ISIS’ advance.
The party’s intervention in the Syrian border areas prevented the militant advance in Iraq from being played out in Lebanon, said Sheikh Nabil Qawouq, the deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council.
“What happened in Iraq is an example of what would have happened in Lebanon,” he said Sunday. “If the takfiris remained on Lebanon’s eastern borders, what happened on Iraq’s border with Syria would have happened [here].”
“ISIS moved from the border toward Mosul, and the takfiris wanted to move from Syrian-Lebanese border to the Bekaa.”
Qawouq said the events in Iraq concerned Lebanon, and showed the “hateful nature” of takfiris, a term that Hezbollah uses to describe some Islamic extremists.