BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army is ready to liberate the outskirts of the northeastern town of Arsal from jihadi militants once political cover and logistical support is secured, a senior military official said Friday. “It is a big operation. We can’t engage in it when there is no united decision from the Cabinet to provide political cover for the move,” the source told The Daily Star, asking to remain anonymous.
“We have all the weapons and equipment we need. But still we need enough diesel for vehicles for the operation and a decent food supply for the additional number of soldiers who will take part in the attack,” the source said. “Once political cover and logistical support is available, we are ready to launch the operation.”
The situation on Arsal’s outskirts was the main topic of discussion during Thursday’s Cabinet session and will be tackled again during a special session Monday.
Hezbollah, currently fighting alongside the Syrian Army against Islamist militants in the border region of Qalamoun, has warned that its fighters would drive jihadis out of Arsal’s outskirts if the state failed to do so. Militants have been holed up in the mountains surrounding Arsal since spring 2014, when they were driven by Hezbollah and the Syrian Army from major Qalamoun cities.
The Future Movement, Hezbollah’s rival, accuses the party of trying to drag the Army into a confrontation with jihadis.
But the source said no one can push the Army into the conflict.
“No one can force us to fight a battle whose time and place they determine,” the source said.
The source said that the battle with the jihadis on Arsal’s outskirts was not inevitable.
“Who knows, a certain deal might be agreed upon under which they might withdraw into Syria through safe roads,” the source said. “These are not local gangs, they have links in Syria and Iraq.”
The source said it was unlikely that huge numbers of jihadis withdrawing from Qalamoun have joined ISIS and Nusra Front militants in Arsal’s outskirts.
“We haven’t observed any new movements for them,” the source said, estimating the number of Islamist militants in Arsal’s outskirts to be around 3,000.
Asked about the Army’s intensified patrols around its checkpoints in Arsal Thursday and Friday, the source said they aimed at allaying the fears of residents.
For the second day, residents of Arsal cheered for Army patrols, showering them with rice in show of support.
“We want to show that Arsal is not against the Army and the state as pictured by some media outlets. Around 90 percent of Arsal’s residents stand by the side of the Army.”
The Army has checkpoints around the peripheries of Arsal and one inside the town. But the source said that the military mounted patrols inside the town and raided Syrian refugee camps whenever it received information that terrorists could be seeking refuge there.
The Army official ruled out a repeat of last August’s scenario, when ISIS and Nusra Front fighters briefly invaded Arsal and captured over 30 Army soldiers and policemen. The two groups still hold around 25 hostages, who are believed to be located on Arsal’s outskirts.
“Last time we were taken by surprise, but now we have made fortifications and we are ready for them,” the source said.
“We are the ones taking the initiative now and seizing control of hilltops,” the source added in reference to the Army’s control of strategic areas on the outskirts of Arsal and Ras Baalbek over the past months.
The source said that the delivery of $3 billion worth of French arms to the military provided by a Saudi grant was proceeding normally. The Army received the first shipment in April.
Commenting on the political bickering over security appointments which threatens to leave the post of Army commander in vacuum, the source described the Army commander as “the man at the helm.”
Rival political factions are at odds over impending security appointments. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun insists that a new Army commander and Internal Security chief should be appointed after the terms of the current ones expire.
ISF chief Maj Gen. Ibrahim Basbous retires Thursday while Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi’s term expires on Sept. 23.
The Future Movement, MP Walid Jumblatt and Speaker Nabih Berri back the extension of their terms if the Cabinet fails to agree on successors.
The dispute threatens to paralyze the government.
The source said the Army would try to continue functioning normally if a new Army commander is not appointed, with an officer holding the post as an acting commander.
The source described the security situation in Lebanon as “excellent” in comparison to other countries in the region.
“We are closely monitoring any terror suspects and we will round them up when necessary,” he said.