BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Army Commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi assured the public Thursday that political bickering over security appointments would not affect the military’s will to confront terrorists, as the government emerged intact after talks on his successor and the security situation in the northeastern town of Arsal.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam set another session for Monday to continue discussion of the topics, either of which could paralyze the government if no agreement is reached.
“The exceptional circumstances that the country is experiencing and the internal bickering over upcoming events and [sensitive] topics will have no effect on the will of the Army to preserve the path of civil peace, protect coexistence between the Lebanese, and confront terrorist organizations on the eastern border,” Kahwagi said during a tour of the headquarters of the First Artillery Regiment in the Beirut’s Karantina quarter.
“Every day the Army confronts terrorist groups which attempt to infiltrate the border, and faces these organizations with utmost determination and strength, regardless of the sacrifices required.”
The Army has clashed with jihadi militants in the mountainous outskirts of Arsal on an almost daily basis. Arsal has been back in the headlines in recent weeks, with Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah warning that his party will take matters into its own hands if the Army does not drive militants from the outskirts of the town.
The March 14 coalition has since accused Hezbollah of trying to drag the Lebanese Army into a battle with jihadi groups.
Arsal was briefly overrun by militants from the Nusra Front and ISIS last August; the groups are still holding around 25 soldiers and policemen captured during the battles as hostages.
Echoing Nasrallah, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun called on the Army to force jihadis from Arsal’s outskirts, complaining in an interview earlier this week that the military had yet to properly address a number of mistakes made in the August fighting.
The security appointments also remain a major source of tension between Lebanon’s rival factions.
Aoun has warned that the government could be paralyzed if the terms of Kahwagi and Internal Security Forces Chief Maj. Gen. Ibrahi Basbous are extended.
Basbous’s term expires next Thursday, while Kahwagi is scheduled to retire on Sept. 23.
But the Future Movement, Speaker Nabih Berri and MP Walid Jumblatt back extensions of their terms if the Cabinet cannot reach an agreement on their successors.
“We will not allow any [...] confusion or distortion of the huge sacrifices that the Army has made in fierce confrontations [with] takfiri terrorism since last August,” Kahwagi said.
“The Army has done what the strongest armies in the world have failed to do in the face of such organizations,” he said, adding that the military would emerge victorious.
The Army intensified patrols between its checkpoints in and around Arsal Thursday, as locals showered the military vehicles with rice.
The government managed to calmly discuss the security appointments and the situation in Arsal during its weekly session, but no final decisions were made on the issues.
Several ministers said that talks between Berri, Jumblatt, and Aoun, which intensified Wednesday evening, contributed to the calm atmosphere that prevailed during the session.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, was the first to bring up the divisive topics, and stressed the need to appoint new security officials.
His position was supported by Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, from Hezbollah.
Defense Minister Samir Moqbel said that the situation in Arsal was “under control” and that the Army was ready to repel any attack by jihadis.
But he added that an Army operation inside the town to drive away militants believed to be hiding in its Syrian refugee camps could be costly, and would require a Cabinet decision.
Moqbel said even with the Qalamoun offensive launched by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army against Syrian rebels, no more than 150 jihadis had withdrawn from Qalamoun into Arsal, and that this number did not constitute a large threat.
For his part, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk explained the situation in Arsal in detail, blaming Hezbollah for the town’s current problems.
Machnouk said he was the first official to admit that Arsal was an “occupied town,” but stressed that the state would not abandon its duty to liberate occupied land.
Hajj Hasan detailed what was happening in Arsal and the surrounding hills, and explained the factors that pushed Hezbollah to launch the Qalamoun offensive. He too urged the state to liberate Arsal’s outskirts.
Salam said that protecting the country was the responsibility of all political factions in Lebanon.
The premier added that the people of Arsal support the state, and that Lebanon must protect itself from the repercussions of the Syrian war.
Ministerial sources expect Monday’s session to be calm as well, and said that while the topic of Arsal could be overcome, the dispute over the appointment of a new ISF chief could jeopardize the Cabinet.
Machnouk said that he still had till next Thursday to decide on the matter, and provided no details as to what he would do.
FPM ministers and others from Hezbollah said it was highly possible they would boycott Cabinet sessions if Basbous’ term is extended on June 5.
Although no firm decision was made on either of these issues, the government did appoint four members to the Higher Judicial Council: Judges Michel Tarazi, Tannous Meshleb, Mohammad al-Mortada and Marwan Karkabi.
The Cabinet also approved an advance payment of LL10 billion to the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, currently in the midst of a financial crisis, and LL2 billion to Baabda’s Public Hospital.
But not everyone shared the relative calm of the Cabinet talks. Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc slammed the Future Movement in a statement, accusing it of “embracing” jihadi groups in Arsal’s outskirts.
“The voices by some Future Movement MPs and officials come in the context of creating trouble, confusion and distorting truth, which they are used to,” the bloc said in a statement issued following its weekly meeting.
“[They] will not succeed in providing cover to their party’s involvement in embracing [...] takfiri terrorist gangs in Lebanon, or in covering [up] its political and moral responsibility for violations and crimes which targeted the Lebanese,” the statement read.
Berri was quoted by visitors Thursday evening as saying that rising tensions between Hezbollah and Future would not bring a halt to the dialogue sessions the groups have held since last December.
“No one can stop the dialogue. This dialogue kicked off only after I got Iranian and Saudi approval, and it will continue,” said Berri, who claimed that the stability Lebanon is currently enjoying comes was a direct result of the talks.