TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Sheikh Kanaan Naji, the head of the powerful Islamist group Jundallah, has spoken out for the first time since the beginning of violence in Tripoli to call the events “part of the Syrian issue,” saying that Hezbollah and March 8 are attempting to drive a wedge between Sunnis and the Lebanese Army.
Since its formation in the 1970s in Tripoli, Jundallah has emerged as the dominant force in the northern city’s Islamist Committees, which Naji heads. Jundallah has so far not taken part in the Tripoli clashes, and Naji told The Daily Star he decided to break his media silence to speak about the connection between Tripoli’s violence and the Syrian uprising, as well as efforts to split the Sunni population from the Army.
Since the Syrian Army’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon, Naji said Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian regime, has “insisted on ruling the country through involvement in government and repeatedly obstructing its work.
“Today, Syria wants to prevent us from supporting the uprising,” Naji said, denying that the rebel Free Syrian Army has a presence in Lebanon.
“We sympathize with the uprising morally,” he said, “but not by embracing the Syrian Army ... all events taking place in Tripoli are related to the Syrian uprising and how it develops, and thus the Syrian regime is threatening a security explosion [inside Lebanon] to prevent us from supporting the uprising.”
Naji continued that “supporting the uprising is an honor for us, and we will not be subjected to threats. We will confront every attempt by the Syrian Army to enter Lebanon again, not just in Tripoli but at the borders as well.”
Hezbollah and March 8 are inciting sectarian strife in order to drive a wedge between Sunnis and the Lebanese Army, Naji said, citing the killing of a prominent anti-Assad Muslim sheikh and his companion at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in Akkar in late May as evidence for this.
Almost immediately after the shootings, angry protesters took to the streets in Akkar, Tripoli, and Beirut.
“We have informed the army command that the aim of the incident is to divide the Sunnis from the army and that the incident was deliberate and calculated,” Naji said. But he insisted that “the Lebanese Army is a necessity, and will remain the institution that guarantees peace and stability in the country, despite some violations [it has made].”
Addressing those who he said want to divide Sunnis from the Army, Naji said: “Cease your efforts; we will not clash with the Army. We also say to all groups that we will continue to support the Army, and hope investigations will continue in the Akkar incident.”
Of the Tripoli clashes, largely in the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh, Jabal Mohsen and Qobbeh, Naji’s participation is not in the Lebanese interest.
“We will not allow division between us,” he said. “We will not stop supporting the Syrian uprising and embracing it socially and morally ... we will give all our support to Syrian refugees,” but said they cannot become part of Lebanon’s security equation.
“Those who are supporters of the Syrian regime have the right to express their opinions freely, but without violating the law,” he added.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt Monday said that the events in Tripoli were aimed at putting pressure on Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government so as to bring it down. For his part, Naji said that “unfortunately some see the events in Tripoli as an opportunity to topple the government, but in our opinion this is not the way to bring it down.”
Naji said that his “message to local and regional groups is ‘halt your attempts to tamper with security.’”
After Tripoli’s neighborhoods were calmed, in part due to deployment of the Lebanese Army, there were attacks on several Alawite-owned businesses.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have condemned the attacks, and Naji called them “a game [intended] to make Alawites feel targeted. We call on the government to deal with this issue with justice.”
“Change in Syria will take place sooner or later,” he said, speaking of the issue he believes is driving events in the north. “If things spiral out of control [in Lebanon], it will affect all groups.”