IS fighters sought to turn Lebanon into Iraq, claims army commander
BEIRUT — The self-proclaimed Islamic State fighters, who seized a Lebanese border town this month, planned to turn Lebanon into another Iraq by unleashing sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites that would have endangered the nation’s very existence, the army commander said.
Gen. Jean Kahwaji told Reuters that Islamists on the march in Iraq and Syria still posed a “great threat” to Lebanon, which was torn apart by a 1975-90 civil war and has been badly buffeted by the Syrian conflict. “The army hit them and continues to, smashing their plan,” said Kahwaji, 37 of whose soldiers were either killed or captured in the battle for the border town of Arsal. “But this does not mean that the story is over,” he said.
“They might think of another plan and try another time to cause Sunni-Shiite strife,” said Kahwaji, 60.
The Aug. 2 attack marked the most serious spillover to date of Syria’s three-year-old civil war into Lebanon and the first time a foreign invader has taken Lebanese territory since Israel entered the south during its 2006 war with Hezbollah. Battle-hardened in Syria, the insurgents were members of radical groups including the Islamic State, which has redrawn the borders of the Middle East by seizing territory in Syria and Iraq.
Dozens of the militants were killed in Arsal during a five-day battle with the Lebanese army, according to army estimates. The militants withdrew into the mountainous border zone last Thursday, taking with them 19 captive soldiers.
Kahwaji, dressed in military fatigues, said the Islamists’ aim had been to turn the Sunni Muslim town of Arsal into a bridgehead from which to advance on surrounding Shiite villages, igniting a sectarian fire storm he said would have destroyed Lebanon.
“The strife in Iraq would have moved to Lebanon — 100 percent,” said Kahwaji, a Maronite Christian.
He said he was basing his assessment on the confessions of an Islamist commander whose detention on Aug. 2 was the immediate trigger for the battle. The commander, Emad Gomaa, had been “fine tuning” the plan at the time of his arrest, Kahwaji said.
Gomaa, 30, was a member of the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the conflict, but had recently switched allegiance to the Islamic State. He had previously worked as a purveyor of dairy products, Kahwaji said.
His confessions had led to the arrest of a number of militant cells in different parts of Lebanon, he added.
“Would there have remained a state? It is a battle for the survival of the Lebanese entity,” Kahwaji said.
Outside Kahwaji’s office at the Ministry of Defense in the hills outside Beirut, where he spoke to Reuters this week, a cartoon shows a soldier carrying a map of Lebanon on his back.
The Arsal crisis rallied all of Lebanon’s main leaders, including Sunni politician Saad Al-Hariri, around the army. Kahwaji described Hariri’s backing as crucial. He “sensed the degree of danger to Lebanon”, he said.
Hariri returned to Lebanon on Friday for the first time since 2011, ending his self-imposed exile following the downfall of his government in order to buttress the moderates against radicals who have gained ground during his absence.