Beirut, the concrete jungle of the Middle East

Lebanese commander: ‘No bargaining’ with Arsal militants

General jean Kahwaji

Lebanon has regained Arsal, and the flag of the Lebanese army was raised. The dark banners were taken down after militants sought to remove the national identity and the people of the village to make it a safe haven for groups who only master the language of sedition and blood and have a talent for slaughter and beheading.

What if terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) were able to occupy Arsal, its hills and barren mountains? Where would the demarcation lines between them and their surroundings have been?

Upon his arrest, Syrian rebel commander Abu Ahmad Jomaa revealed the bloody map developed by the IS group. It starts from Arsal, goes through Labwe to reach deep into the north and finally arrives at the coast of Akkar and Tripoli. Let us imagine the situation in Lebanon in light of this coup.

The Lebanese army prevented the implementation of this plan and the achievement of the militants’ objective of placing all of Lebanon on the altar of sedition, thanks to an epic fight by the military forces. They showed extreme courage in fighting the hordes of armed groups attacking military barracks in the area. Some military members were killed, some were injured and some went missing on the battlefield.

What happened in Arsal is a lesson for all. The political authorities and the military establishment must now assume a shared responsibility. They must embrace Arsal and recover the kidnapped soldiers. “There will be no bargaining on the missing soldiers or on the blood of the martyrs and the wounded soldiers, whatever the price,” said the commander of the Armed Forces, Brig. Gen. Jean Kahwaji.

What happened in Arsal?

Kahwaji reviewed the facts starting from October 2011. He told As-Safir, “During this period, the Syrian crisis had just started, and in light of the accelerated events on the ground in Syria at the time, I sent a letter to the political authorities, including a warning that the Syrian war will last long and Lebanon will not be immune to its repercussions. I also drew the attention of the officials that Lebanon may be under great pressure and suffer from a severe crisis due to the displaced Syrians. I suggested to the political authorities the necessity to pre-contain the crisis and form a crisis cell so as not to be taken by surprise by the events and dangerous repercussions that Lebanon cannot afford.”

Kahwaji said, “In early 2012, I issued a second letter with the same content to the political authorities, and a third letter was also issued at the end of the same year. I reiterated my opinion during the meetings of the Supreme Defense Council. I submitted a detailed explanation of the situation in Syria and its repercussions and shed light on dangerous issues, especially on the border, while the flow of displaced Syrians increased, making the situation in Arsal even worse. I have always warned that we will find ourselves one day dealing with a major and serious problem in Arsal, and that remedying the situation requires a swift initiative, since letting the problem worsen inevitably means a more dangerous problem that may not be treated.”

Kahwaji looked back on happened in Arsal and said, “We determined all expectations and possibilities, and accordingly, the army took action within the limits it deemed necessary. We took precautionary steps by establishing military posts around Arsal to prevent the infiltration of militants and terrorists. However, it is known that Arsal is a very wide area and it is difficult to control all of its borders, and we chose certain points where our troops were stationed.”

Kahwaji continued, “We believed that the posts in the vicinity of Arsal were necessary and somewhat needed, especially since Arsal extends over large tracts of land and barren mountains. Each newly established post included the number that it could accommodate. We also set two stationary lines. The first was the advanced military line, and the second rear line was formed by the reserve power from the airborne regiment to provide support when needed. This was maintained until Aug. 2, 2014, i.e., the day terrorist groups attacked the Lebanese army posts in the region.”

Confessions of Jomaa

Kahwaji revealed that the members of one of the military posts managed, at around 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 2, to arrest Jomaa. “As I have already said, his arrest was not the reason why armed groups attacked the army posts; rather, attacks were planned in advance to pounce on military posts,” Kahwaji said.

“Once Jomaa was arrested, militants simultaneously launched a massive assault on all army posts,“ he said. “Meanwhile, an investigation had already started into Jomaa, who surprised the investigators with dangerous confessions, saying that militants were preparing for a large-scale military operation in the region, according to a specific plan targeting all army posts in the region of Arsal, while armed groups attack some Shiite villages near Arsal, including Labwe.”

According to sources close to the investigations, Jomaa confessed that according to the plan, the attack on Arsal was to be accompanied by similar operations in Akkar and then moved to the coast, including other Lebanese regions.

According to Kahwaji, Jomaa said that when he was arrested, he had been doing a final reconnaissance patrol and determining the roads to be used by the armed groups before launching the attack on the army posts. Indeed, as soon as Jomaa was arrested, the gunmen started a violent attack on all posts simultaneously, using artillery, heavy machine guns and Kornet rockets. The soldiers responded, men were killed and injured and others captured. It turned out that the terrorist groups did not take the captured soldiers to Arsal, but immediately moved them to the remote and barren lands a few kilometers east of Arsal.

In this context, Kahwaji said that the airborne regiment rushed to the area and fought a fierce battle with the Eighth Brigade and the Commando Regiment against the terrorists. The army was able to retrieve its posts and regain its presence in the Arsal and the hillsides. The casualties among the armed men reached more than 150 dead and 250 wounded, especially in Wadi Hamid, al-Hosn and Muhniye. In light of the army’s advance and the residents’ rejection of the militants, the terrorists left the town and retreated to its barren surroundings.

No deal was made with the armed groups

However, the army’s trouble is not over yet, according to Kahwaji. The military posts were retaken and are more protected now. Arsal is free of terrorists, and the army has replaced them. Contrary to what is being said, no deal was made with the armed groups to leave Arsal, especially since the army dealt them heavy blows and many were killed during their retreat.

Kahwaji noted that the army is ready to respond to any emergency in the areas where it is deployed. Its priority first and foremost is finding and retrieving its soldiers safely, whatever the price. “I notified the political leadership about this, and stressed the point. I was also very intransigent about finding the soldiers with every politician and scholar who got involved in this file. This issue cannot be delayed or forgotten.” Kahwaji said, “During this battle in Arsal, the army protected all Lebanon. The [militants] were preparing [to create] a catastrophe in the country and they would have succeeded had the army failed in Arsal. Everyone should know that the soldiers only care for Lebanon and its protection. They are not influenced by any political campaign. This battle confirmed that our army is strong, its morals high, even higher than any attempt to break it. So the army resisted on the battlefield and stopped an attempt to change the face of Lebanon, or even to eradicate it from the map.”

Kahwaji added, “This is what I confirmed during the parliament’s session. I informed the prime minister that had the army lost to the armed groups in Arsal, the Sunni-Shiite strife would have ravaged Lebanon and the militants would have arrived in Labwe, where they would have opened a new dangerous seam and committed massacres. Had the army lost, [the armed groups] would have entered Akkar, arrived at the coast and declared their state. There lied the catastrophe. No one knows where they could have arrived inside Lebanon. But what the army did is bigger than any achievement and victory, as it thwarted the most dangerous plan Lebanon had ever faced with the blood of martyrs, injured and captives. The army preserved its presence and stopped the terrorist groups from instilling strife.”

But the danger is not gone, Kahwaji said, “for as long as the crisis continues in Syria, the terrorists will remain in the barren lands. This is why the war on terrorism is endless, and the weapons we are asking for are only for the fight against terrorism.”

Why didn’t the army attack the militants inside Arsal?

Kahwaji replied, “The terrorists took the residents of Arsal hostage and used them as human shields. They sought to push the army toward a confrontation inside the residential neighborhoods, to cause civilian casualties and use this to achieve their goal. But the ultimate decision of the army is not to confront its people and shoot civilians in any Lebanese area. Since this is the army’s principle, how can it kill its people? The soldiers were careful not to harm Arsal’s residents during its confrontation with the armed groups. This is why they were only shooting at the militants.”

Kahwaji said, “The army is dealing with an enemy that threatens everything. It is only insisting on armament and equipment at this point because the danger is much bigger, and the sacrifices of the soldiers are larger. They are not expecting anything in return.”

Author Nabil Haytham
Posted August 12, 2014

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