Lebanese Army Clashes With Militants in Syria War SpilloverDonna Abu-Nasr
Lebanon’s army battled an al-Qaeda affiliated group on its border for a third day today in violence that threatens to worsen sectarian tensions in the country and test the unity of the armed forces.
The fighting is the most serious spillover into Lebanon of the three-year conflict in Syria, which has also ignited clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Lebanon and led to bomb attacks in Beirut.
Violence flared on Aug. 2 after the arrest of Imad Ahmed Joumaa, a Syrian citizen who identified himself as member of the al-Nusra Front, according to an army statement. Syrian militants raided the Lebanese town of Ersal across the poorly demarcated border and demanded Joumaa’s release.
The fighting is a “continuation of the confrontation in Syria and has the potential of duplicating what’s taking place in Iraq,” where Islamic State militants have taken control of Mosul and other cities, said Sami Nader, a professor of international relations at Beirut’s St. Joseph University.
At least 14 Lebanese troops have been killed and 86 wounded, while 22 are missing, the army said in a statement. Three children were killed in shelling attacks on Ersal, the official NNA news service reported today.
“Prolonged fighting has the potential of sparking a sectarian war and poses a threat to the unity of the army,” Nader said.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam said he has contacted the French government to expedite the shipment of weapons that were part of $3 billion in military aid from Saudi Arabia.
“There will be no leniency in dealing with the murderous terrorists,” Salam, a Sunni Muslim, said in a televised speech. “The only solution is for the gunmen to withdraw from Ersal.”
Footage on LBCI TV showed a long line of cars, open trucks and vans packed with families fleeing Ersal as black smoke billowed from the hills around the town. The gunmen looted homes and stores and forced some residents to stay in the town so they can use them as human shields, according to NNA.
“What has happened is more serious than what some people think,” army chief General Jean Kahwaji said yesterday. The group was planning “to execute a large-scale operation against army positions.”
Ersal, with a population of 38,000, is hosting more than 120,000 Syrian refugees, according to Bakr al-Hujeiri, coordinator in Ersal for the Future Movement, the main Sunni political group. Some of the gunmen have been hiding in the camps, al-Hujeiri said by phone.
The violence comes amid a political impasse that has prevented the election of a successor to President Michel Suleiman, whose term ended May 25.
Deadly confrontations have been taking place for weeks in Syria’s Qalamoun mountainous region area across the border from Ersal between Sunni militants, including Nusra, and troops loyal to Assad.
Assad is from the Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, and has been backed by fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah group.