The Army Command does not fear large-scale defections into the ranks of jihadists, according to a high-profile Army source.
“Sunni servicemen will not defect from the Army, because they have clear knowledge of how the military is behaving and they know that allegations by terrorist groups that the Army is oppressing Sunnis are mere lies,” the source told The Daily Star Thursday.
“The head of the Army battalion deployed in Arsal is a Sunni – why hasn’t he defected?” the source said. “Some of the soldiers killed or kidnapped during the Arsal battles are also Sunnis.”
The source explained that the military establishment, whose members are from Lebanon’s various sects, was treating all religious groups in the country equally.
“Just as we arrest Sunni suspects, we also chase and detain Shiite fugitives.”
He pointed to repetitive Army raids on the Baalbek neighborhood of Hay al-Sharawneh, where many Shiite suspects often seek refuge.
He also said the Army had arrested members of the powerful Shiite Meqdad clan in 2012 after they kidnapped Syrian refugees and Turkish nationals in Lebanon.
The source explained that only soldiers Atef Mohammad Saadeddine, who announced that he had entered the ranks of the Nusra Front in July, and Abdallah Shehadeh, who joined the same group this month, have actually fled Army ranks.
The others were sacked from the Army over misconduct way before they announced their joining of terrorist groups, the source said, in reference to two other soldiers who announced that they had joined ISIS and the Nusra Front earlier this month.
The source downplayed accusations by the Nusra Front, ISIS and other Islamist groups that the Army was under Hezbollah’s control.
“We receive military aid from the U.S. which Hezbollah describes as the ‘great Satan.’”
The military official dismissed claims that the Army was cracking down on Lebanese who were aiding Syrian rebels, while refraining from taking action against Hezbollah militants crossing the border to fight alongside the Syrian regime.
“We are not arresting residents of Tripoli who are fighting in Syria and returning home, although we know their names,” the source said.
“Even extremist groups positioned in the outskirts of Arsal now, if they drop their arms and abandon their takfiri ideology, we won’t mind that they live in Lebanon like other Syrian refugees,” he said.
The source described Arsal as the “hot spot” in Lebanon at the present time.
He said that the course of battles in the outskirts of the northeastern town and adjacent Syrian territories indicated that ISIS and the Nusra Front were now focusing on taking over a village on the Syrian side of the border.
“But who knows? If snow falls early this year, they might choose the short route and attack Arsal again. We are waiting for them,” the source said.
He said it was unlikely that radical Syrian rebels would attack the southern region of Arqoub, which includes the areas of Kfar Shuba, Shebaa and Hasbaya, similar to how they did in Arsal.
“The demographic structure in Hasbaya is different. The plan of the terrorist groups is to have a sea outlet and it is very hard to reach the sea from Arqoub,” the source said. “UNIFIL troops are also present in the area.”
The source described the situation in Tripoli as “excellent,” particularly after fugitives Shadi al-Mawlawi an Osama Mansour evacuated a mosque in the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.
The source stressed that the crackdown on terrorist cells across the country was ongoing, although sometimes it was away from the media spotlight.
He said that despite their deep differences, the various political groups in Lebanon were interested in preventing the overall situation from exploding.
“It is clear from the way the government was formed and how it is functioning. Ministers set aside all their disputes and attend the Cabinet session every week,” he said.
“There is an international umbrella protecting Lebanon,” he added. “But this does not mean that we should stand by idly. All political groups should also do their part in protecting stability.”