BEIRUT: Lebanese officials once again praised the work of the Army after questions were raised over the circumstances leading to the deaths of four Syrian detainees taken into custody in the wake attacks on a military unit in the town of Arsal.
"The Lebanese Army raids in Arsal are part of a major security sweep against terrorists and could in no way be described as an act against Syrian refugees themselves,” Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, said in a speech at a memorial ceremony Monday, the state-run National News Agency reported.
“Those waging defaming campaigns against the Lebanese Army are only helping terrorists reach their goals,” Hajj Hasan added.
On June 30, a wave of suicide attacks were launched against an Army unit conducting a raid in an Arsal refugee settlement, leaving at least seven soldiers wounded and at least one Syrian child dead. Following the attack, 355 Syrian nationals were detained in a security crackdown, among which were several with suspected links to Daesh (ISIS), according to security sources.
The deaths of the four men while in custody led to calls, including from Prime Minister Saad Hariri, for an inquiry into the Army’s handling of the detainees. This in turn prompted reiterations of support for the Army from other parties.
"The Lebanese Army deserves the unremitting support of all Lebanese politicians, media and activists because it has successfully managed to spread security and curb terrorist activities across Lebanon,” Hajj Hasan said.
Arsal outskirts have been a flashpoint for violent spillover from the Syria crisis, with Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham -formerly known as the Nusra Front - entrenched in the area. The Army frequently bombards the militants’ positions in an effort to keep them at bay.
The minister also commented on the number of Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon, saying the population had become “enormously large” and had exceeded “two million” according to most recent information. There are currently 1.01 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, though the government estimates the number is around 1.5 million.
“This [refugee population] is a source of massive pressure on the Lebanese economy, security and infrastructure. It’s true that the Syrian people are our brothers and are more than welcome as our guests, but I’m afraid that the Lebanese reality cannot tolerate this burden any longer,” Hajj Hasan said.
The Hezbollah-affiliated minister also said he supported “direct dialogue and direct communication” with the Syrian regime over the refugees’ return to Syria in a “systematic, thoughtful, safe and realistic way.” He also accused those opposed to coordinating with Bashar Assad’s regime of wanting the refugees to remain indefinitely in Lebanon.
Also Monday, Future bloc MP Amin Wehbi told the Radio Orient station that Hezbollah’s continued involvement in the fighting in Syria could only have a negative impact on Lebanon’s internal security situation, particularly within Syrian refugee settlements.
“The Army has proven to be the only force that reassures both the Lebanese and the refugees alike,” Wehbi added. In response to criticism of the Army’s tactics, he said it was only performing its duties and that the Lebanese judiciary and authorities had the last word on the guilt or innocence of those in custody.
“We are not accusing Syrian refugees of being responsible for terrorist activities within their camps. But when terrorists infiltrate refugee camps, and when the Army raids these camps and [confirms] the presence of terrorists who are planning to target the Lebanese society and institutions, then this highlights the importance of the Army’s security operations, as well as the appropriateness of their time and place,” Wehbi said.
"We have to defend the Army and provide it with support, training and equipment. We have to embrace it politically and protect it,” he said. However, he added that “the Army's [actions] must steer clear from avoidable suspicion,” in apparent reference to the questions surrounding the deaths in custody.
Ziad Aswad, representing Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf at a lecture organized by local NGO Labora in the southern city of Sidon, reiterated calls for the Lebanese state and institutions to provide the Army with increased support.
“It is necessary to emphasize the paramount importance of preserving the future and the sustainability of the military establishment, as well as its strength and interrelationship with the youth of Lebanon,” he said.