Lebanese state abandons security personnel kidnapped in Ersal

Lebanese army troops take position on the road leading the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal in the eastern Bekaa Valley on August 7, 2014, after a truce was announced to end fighting between jihadists and Lebanese government forces on the Syrian border. (Photo: AFP-Joseph Eid)
Published Saturday, August 9, 2014
Quickly, the Lebanese government forgot all about its hostages. Accustomed to “begging,” the Lebanese government is perhaps waiting for one of the jihadi emirs to be so kind as to release the Lebanese army soldiers and police officers who were abducted in Ersal. After all, it wasn’t the news of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s return that overshadowed the hostage crisis; rather, it seems that the government itself wants the Lebanese to forget about the hostages.
It is a scandal. Military operations in Ersal have come to an end, but the fate of 36 missing soldiers and policemen is unknown. Or rather, it is known, since the parties that the Lebanese authorities negotiated with through the Muslim Scholars Association – i.e. the Islamic State (IS), al-Nusra Front and al-Katiba al-Khadraa – were the ones behind the kidnapping of the Lebanese soldiers and Internal Security officers, with a view to swap them for convicts and detainees in Lebanese and Syrian prisons.

It is a scandal. Military operations in Ersal have come to an end, but the fate of 36 missing soldiers and policemen is unknown.

In other words, what we have is a repeat of what occurred with the two bishops kidnapped in Aleppo, the nuns kidnapped in Maaloula, and the Lebanese pilgrims abducted in Aazaz, although this time the hostages are men in uniform.
Despite this, everything was business as usual with the Lebanese government on Friday, as though nothing had happened. Just like the Lebanese government sits and waits for royal grants to arm the army, the security services, and even to enroll children in public schools, the Lebanese authorities are waiting now for a “grant” from one of the emirs of the Syrian terrorist groups affiliated to the opposition, to reveal the fate of the abducted soldiers and policemen, guarantee their safety, and come up with demands in return for their release.
The Lebanese authorities, meanwhile, are not willing to carry out any kind of inquiry into what happened in the past several days. No one wants to ask how soldiers, police officers and civilians were killed and how others were kidnapped, or indeed, how an entire town slipped out of the control of the central government and removed from its sovereignty. Moreover, the political authorities believe they had made an achievement, with ministers – perhaps rightly so – saying that the town of Ersal had been preserved with the majority of its population unscathed, and so was civil peace and the cohesion of the military.
However, the flip side of this achievement is scandalous by any measure. It is as if the government wants the Lebanese to come to terms with the idea that terrorists had overrun a Lebanese town, kidnapped soldiers and policemen, and pulled out to a known area safely, without anyone pursuing them.

No one wants to ask how… an entire town slipped out of the control of the central government and removed from its sovereignty.

For this, some politicians have been insinuating that the leadership of the army is responsible. However, the latter continues to deny having negotiated with the militants, saying the army had only abided by the decisions of the political authorities.
As to why the army has not pursued the militants into the mountainous regions they are holed up in on the Lebanese side of the border, a “centrist” minister said, “The militants were there before, and things have now returned to the way they were. Can the army really pursue them in such vast areas?”
Perhaps the political authorities are used to deflecting blame in situations like these. But what will the army leadership do? Will it just sit and wait for negotiations with the militants to take their course?
The families of the hostages have been waiting for the “figure from Ersal” that was – according to the Muslim Scholars delegation – supposed to provide an update on their kidnapped relatives, but so far they have received no information. Even days after the militants withdrew from Ersal a few kilometers towards the Syrian-Lebanese border, this “figure” has yet to say anything about the fate of Lebanese soldiers and policemen who the Lebanese government seems to have already forgotten.
The families are anxiously waiting for any news that could bring them some relief. On Friday afternoon, there were “leaks” about a list of 20 detainees in the Roumieh prison that the militants supposedly want to be freed in return for releasing the hostages. However, according to Reuters, the government denied having received a list of this kind.
In Ersal, there have been no new developments following the militants’ withdrawal. The people of the town have come out to inspect their properties and check up on their relatives and neighbors, as dozens of families that had fled when the battles intensified with the militants (led by IS and other radical groups) have now returned.
There were long queues of small trucks carrying dozens of returnees, prompting the army at the checkpoints it had erected to start directing traffic and guarantee the civilians’ safety, according to military sources, especially for the people of the Ras al-Saraj district where the army continues to carry out combing operations.
In effect, it was in this district in particular that the most violent clashes had erupted. In the first few days, the militants carried out a fierce attack, culminating with their seizure of the barracks of the 83rd Battalion and the vocational school there.

The mayor appealed to the Lebanese government to send in the Higher Relief Commission to survey the damage inflicted on homes and businesses.

The militants also occupied the homes in the neighborhood and a mosque, and even the refugee camp there, causing massive damage to property, according to Mohammed Houjeiri, a local from Ersal who spoke to Al-Akhbar.
The army continued to fortify its positions, erecting a number of barriers in Ras al-Saraj and the vocational school area, without entering the town itself.
Currently, there is no electricity or water in the town. The clashes that lasted for the better part of six days ended up destroying or damaging most electric substations in the area. One mayor from Ersal told Al-Akhbar that this means the town has no ability to pump water from the four main wells it depends on, calling on Électricité Du Liban to rush its repairs of the substations. The mayor appealed to the Lebanese government to send in the Higher Relief Commission to survey the damage inflicted on homes and businesses, as well as vehicles, whether damaged or stolen.
“Ersal is a disaster area,” said Khaled, a resident of Ersal. In his view, the damage is not limited to the immediate devastation caused by the fighting, but also includes losses as a result of looting by the militants throughout the six days during which they ransacked the town.
“The militants spared no homes or shops. Some even burned down homes after robbing them, to make it appear as though they were burned by the fighting,” he said.
In turn, one of the notables of Ersal told Al-Akhbar there were also non-material damages inflicted on the people of the town. He said, “There is a moral damage that has hurt every person in Ersal who sheltered a Syrian refugee and his family for the past three years.”
He added, “Every person in Ersal is now concerned with the possibility of sleeper cells or even the return of the militants. Every one of us now realizes that militants withdrew to the camps after murdering, robbing, and terrorizing people from the town, and there are now sleeper cells inside those camps.”
The man then vowed, “We will not sit idly by, and the solution for now will be self-security [i.e. vigilantism] until the state returns with its agencies to Ersal.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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