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Lebanese factions seek unity against terrorism threat

After the new Lebanese government secures parliament’s official blessing, it may have the political cover to act militarily to address troubling security problems.
A general view shows the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley March 19, 2014. The Lebanese army reopened a road between two towns near the Syrian border on Wednesday to try to calm sectarian rivalry aggravated by the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Shi'ite Muslims from the Bekaa Valley town of al-Labwa, where Hezbollah has strong support, had erected sandbag barriers at the weekend to cut off the Sunni Muslim town of Arsal from the rest of Lebanon. REUTERS/Hassan Abdallah (LEBANON - Ta

It is now clear that quick and decisive action is needed to deal with the security hotspots in the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon, especially after the fall of Yabrud, near the eastern border, to the Syrian army.

That event has rapidly escalated the Lebanese security situation. First, missiles have been launched from Syrian territory against Lebanese border towns. Second, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, March 16. Lebanese security forces have detected a number of such bombs entering Lebanon; one was intercepted March 17 and destroyed by the army in Baalbek.

Third, there are rumors that a large number of gunmen who fled the battle zone in Yabrud have moved into Arsal. They are now surrounded by the Syrian regime to the east, the Shiites (who oppose them) to the south and north and by the Lebanese army, which is spread across the region. Fourth, in Tripoli, the security situation between Sunni neighborhoods and the besieged Alawite district there has worsened with what appeared to be retaliation by opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the fall of Yabrud. That clash left about a dozen Lebanese dead and more than 100 wounded.

Lebanon's deteriorating security requires that the new government take urgent steps to address it. Among the necessary preparations, however, are ensuring political cover for any military operation, whether in Arsal or in Tripoli, providing the strength needed, and finally, choosing the best timing for implementation.

On the first order, Lebanese political officials have assured Al-Monitor that there are behind-the-scenes contacts being made to arrange the necessary cover. What that means practically is that the various sectarian parties — in particular, the Sunnis, Shiites and Christians calling for action — need to request that the government do its duty in regard to this matter. This would offer “national cover” for any steps taken and protection from charges of the government siding with one party against another.

Politicians have told Al-Monitor that contacts are underway between Christian leader Michel Aoun and the most powerful Sunni leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to discuss this issue, whereby there would be an agreement to simultaneously publicly present identical positions calling on Lebanese authorities to resolve matters on the ground, especially in the north and the Bekaa Valley.

The second issue is no less problematic: Who can implement an effective military solution? The Lebanese government always stresses that the army and other security forces are ready to accomplish it, but while noting that the consequences of exhausting the army in internal battles of this type remain fresh in everyone’s mind. Of particular note is the army's 2007 battle against a Sunni fundamentalist group of limited size and armament based in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, near Tripoli. The army won the battle, but only after more than 100 days of heavy fighting, resulting in the loss of 168 soldiers and the wounding of more than 300.

Despite the danger inherent in the military option, many believe it is a necessity that the army resolve the matter in Arsal and in Tripoli to avoid a couple of taboos:

  • Interference from Hezbollah in an internal battle of this kind, especially after accusations that it participated in the army’s fight to crush Ahmad al-Assir's Sunni fundamentalist group in Sidon in June.
  • Interference from Syria through limited or large-scale incursions carried out by its Syrian army in the vicinity of Arsal under the pretext of fighting “terrorists.”

What is the timing of the operation, whether in Tripoli or in Arsal? The politicians concerned prefer that the operation take place soon, even immediately, giving the new government the advantage of a near-consensus supporting it and winning the parliament’s confidence after discussion of the ministerial statement March 19-20. This would provide the government sufficient cover to ask the army to take decisive action in Arsal and Tripoli. In addition, such a move seems necessary to ensure that the new government be able to perform its core mission: securing the political and security conditions to elect a new president, starting March 25, as stipulated by the constitution.

Meanwhile, some fear that political calculations might delay military action. They, too, recall the Nahr al-Bared battle. The existence of the fundamentalist group near Tripoli had been known to everyone, including security officials, but the group was left to act freely. A decision was then taken to strike against the group a few weeks before President Emile Lahoud's term expired. The battle started on a date chosen by the Lebanese security forces, May 21, 2007, and lasted until the army had won, on Sept. 2, 2007.

The army’s victory bestowed on the army commander, Gen. Michel Suleiman, the image of a “savior,” which greatly contributed to his being supported by influential international powers as the sole candidate in presidential elections held the following year. Some in Beirut wonder whether the same can be attempted again, albeit with unknown results.

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