WASHNGTON – The Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaida’s designated attack squad in Syria and now Lebanon, says the Lebanese army will be fair game for attacks because of what it perceives as the military’s cooperation in allowing Hezbollah to move supplies and fighters into Syria.
The al-Qaida affiliate also is warning Lebanon’s Sunnis to stay out of the way when its fighters engage Hezbollah, a Shiite group affiliated with Iran, inside Lebanon.
Hezbollah made the decision last year to send fighters into Syria to help keep the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.
Assad, a Shiite Alawite, is allied with Iran and plays a role in part of what is referred to as the Shiite Crescent, stretching across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Iran represents Shiite Muslims who are fighting a proxy war with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Along with the Saudi kingdom, the Gulf Arab countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates form the Sunni Crescent.
For three years, the Saudis have been pumping money into the fight on behalf of the Sunni foreign fighters, but the Assad regime remains in power.
The effort has been headed by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief and head of the Saudi National Security Council.
Bandar has had his differences with the United States over what factions of the Syrian opposition to support.
Now, the Saudis have decided to replace him with another prince more acceptable to the U.S. He is Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Along with Nayef, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of Saudi King Abdullah and head of the Saudi National Guard, will take on more responsibilities in the kingdom’s policy toward Syria.
Saudi Arabia has been financing and providing foreign fighters to join Islamic militant groups, such as al-Nusra, the newly created Islamic Front and a myriad of other Islamic groups to topple the Assad government. The fact that militants aligned with al-Qaida have joined the opposition has raised concerns in the U.S. and in the Saudi kingdom itself, sources say.
The change from Bandar signals a more diplomatic approach and will add pressure on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who are the main backers of Assad.
Meantime, al-Nusra in Lebanon in a Twitter feed said that “any rational human being is aware of the injustice inflicted by Iran’s party on all the Lebanese and Syrian regions, especially in (the Syrian border towns of Qusair and Qalamoun.”
“This wouldn’t have happened without Hezbollah men and equipment passing into Syria through the Lebanese border crossings under the eyes of the government and the Lebanese army which it controls,” the Twitter feed said.
“Hezbollah is replacing its fighters daily in Syria through the army crossings. It has also tasked the Lebanese army with protecting its quarters so that it can devote itself to battling the Sunni-Syrian people, thus putting the Lebanese army at the forefront to pay the price of its crimes in Syria,” said the statement.
Al-Nusra and a companion group, Abdullah Assam Brigade, have taken responsibility for a series of suicide car bombs since last July in the Hezbollah strongholds of the Bekaa Valley and south Beirut.
As recently as last week, al-Nusra claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb at an army checkpoint in Hermel.
“We consider all the quarters of Hezbollah a legitimate target for us, so leave the two of us alone in the battlefield because we have a big score to settle with Hezbollah,” the Twitter feed said. “To the national people in Lebanon we say, ‘Keep your sons away from our battle against Wilayat al-Faqih and don’t help to the persecutor against the oppressed.’”
Wilayat al-Faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist, is a theory in Shia Islam that gives a faqih, or Islamic jurist, custodianship over people.
The theory today forms the basis for the leadership in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranian constitution calls for a faqih to serve as the supreme leader of the government.
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader following the 1979 Iranian revolution, had written about the idea. Today the supreme leader is Sayyed Ali Khamenei.
Just as al-Nusra looks upon the Lebanese army as a target along with Hezbollah, it suggests that the Islamic group no longer will distinguish between fighting to oust Assad in Syria and engaging the lawful Lebanese army.
This view has been reinforced by what Middle East analysts say is the heavy trafficking of arms across the border and the flow of Hezbollah fighters back and forth.
The sentiment toward the army as expressed by al-Nusra apparently isn’t harbored just by the Islamic militants.
Reports say that Lebanon’s Sunni community is blaming the army for ongoing shelling of militant strongholds, stoking further sectarian tensions which experts are concerned could escalate into sectarian fighting inside Lebanon as well.
Sunnis have been particularly incensed over a number of recent episodes in which the army either took Sunnis to task or sided with Hezbollah.
Sources say the opposition to the army is less sympathy for extremists than a perception the army is punishing Sunnis for backing the rebels while Hezbollah is allowed to continue aiding al-Assad.
Last June, for example, Lebanese soldiers clashed with followers of outspoken Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir, who opposes Hezbollah, and many of those members fought alongside the army.
Sources say that a large percentage of the Lebanese army is Shiite with officers being mostly Shiite and Christians, many of whom are allied with the Shiites.
Lebanon went through a civil war from 1975 to 1990, and the Lebanese are very reluctant to see history repeating itself. The country even now continues to rebuild the devastation resulting from that 15-year civil war.