Sources familiar with events in Arsal believe Lebanese Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi has decided to treat the ambush and killing of three soldiers as a major crime, noting that he has already described it as premeditated.
Kahwagi has three options on how to proceed, each of which has its pros and cons. By sealing off the town until suspects are handed over, he has already put the first option into action. Surrounding Arsal will boost Army morale and project a strong image, but it might also provoke aggressive anti-Army sentiment in the town, feelings that could spread to Tripoli and Akkar.
Because of this possibility, the commander has opted not to use heavy force.
Kahwagi’s second option is to raid the locations where the wanted men are believed to be hiding. This would give the Army a chance to make a decisive move following much talk about the ongoing smuggling of weapons and fighters from border areas. It would also be a confidence builder for the Army. But the sources believe raids would be seen as targeting Arsal and Sunnis, given that the Army has not staged similar raids in Shiite-majority areas dominated by Hezbollah. Some politicians and clerics have already complained of this type of bias.
The sources ruled out the option of raids, citing the likely public outcry and the fact that it would force the Army to readjust its deployment.
The commander’s final option is a compromise, namely agreeing to unseal the town if some of those responsible for the attack are handed over. This would avoid further bloodshed and give the Army what it wants without destabilizing the country, but there is a possibility the true culprits would not be surrendered and such a settlement could make it difficult for the Army to act in the future without the consent of powerful figures in an area or sect.
Some sources believe the attack will result in some constructive outcomes. They say it has boosted popular and political support for the Army, a factor made clear in pro-Army statements by various politicians. The sources add that the ambush has also shed light on the fact that many villages on the border are being used by Syrian rebels and some fundamentalist groups.
They said the incident gives some political forces additional backing to their calls for closer monitoring of the porous border.
Other sources believe that how Kahwagi deals with Arsal will determine his future. It has still not been decided whether the commander’s mandate should be extended for two years, a decision that Parliament must make before its own term expires in June.
Khawagi’s position is delicate, but it is clear that he and the Army will not back off of their demand that those who killed soldiers be handed over so that the Army can restore its strong presence in Arsal and prevent any similar violations. In addition, the Army will continue to distinguish between the people of Arsal – 500 of whom are currently serving in the Army – and those who attacked it.