Syria’s al-Qaida undecided on Lebanon expansion

Air raids hit Lebanese border region; editor of pro-Hezbollah newspaper creates storm after he criticizes country’s President Michel Suleiman.

Al- Qaida linked fighters in Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Al- Qaida linked fighters in Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, has not yet decided whether to expand their operations in Lebanon, a source in the group told a Lebanese newspaper.
A commander in the Nusra Front told Al-Akhbar that his organization and the rival jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were cooperating with “agents” to carry out bombings in Lebanon, but that neither group had yet appointed an emir in the country.
The bombings are meant to convey “messages to Hezbollah as a result of its intervention in Syria,” he said.
Asked if the arrests of its activists in Lebanon weakened the two Sunni groups’ capabilities of carrying out more bombings there, the commander told Al-Akhbar that they did not.
“The two organizations possess the logistical and practical capacity to conduct such operations. However, in reality, the leadership of both organizations have not decided, yet, to break open the conflict on the Lebanese arena,” he said.
However, he said that depending on developments, this could change over the next few days.
“Most of those arrested by security forces are involved in the execution and had nothing to do with planning or strategy, as rumored in the media,” said the Nusra commander.
He said that similar operations to those being undertaken in Iraq, such as bombings and shootings, could be carried out in Lebanon, noting that there are many Shi’ite and Hezbollah targets.
The targeting of civilians is “a message to the party’s support to exert pressure for its withdrawal from Syria,” he told the Lebanese newspaper.
Meanwhile, Syria carried out air raids inside Lebanon on Wednesday close to the Syrian border and near one of the last rebel-held Syrian border towns, Lebanese security sources said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage from the air strikes, which the sources said appeared to be linked to a Syrian military offensive against the rebel stronghold of Yabroud.
Syrian journalists who were taken on a state-organized tour of government- held areas around Yabroud on Tuesday heard gunfire and saw jets flying overhead as troops fought on the edges of the town.
The offensive is part of a military campaign by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah, to drive rebels from the border region and secure territory linking Assad’s coastal bastions with Damascus.
The fighting has frequently spilled across the ill-defined frontier between the two countries. The mainly Sunni rebels have targeted Shi’ite towns inside Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s support for Assad, while Sunni areas sympathetic to the rebels have also come under fire.
Separately, Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar, which tends to support Hezbollah, criticized President Michel Suleiman in an article on Monday titled “Lebanon without a president” that created a storm.
Amin said that Suleiman committed “moral treason.” He called for early elections in order to choose a new president that supports the resistance.
He also wrote that “keeping his [Suleiman’s] portrait hung on the walls of public offices is an insult to all the Lebanese injured, kidnapped and martyred... Michel Suleiman, if you have any of your modesty left, leave.”
The editor has continually attacked Suleiman since he called for Hezbollah’s disarmament last year.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, who is aligned with the Sunni-dominated March 14 Alliance, responded by calling on the public prosecutor “to take necessary legal actions” against Amin and the newspaper for slander, Al-Akhbar reported.
The article “instigates disobedience and abuse of the military and security institutions,” Rifi said, adding that “offending the dignity of the president… has nothing to do with freedom of speech.”
Hezbollah expressed its support for Amin in a statement calling for freedom of the press.
“I think Hezbollah recognizes that there are serious efforts that are part of a larger war to attack the resistance, even in the media, and I don’t think I can explain [Rifi’s] move any other way,” Amin told Lebanon’s The Daily Star.
“Just like the president has the right to criticize the resistance, I also have the right to give my opinion on the issue as a supporter of that resistance,” he said.
The Al-Akhbar editor also said that if a summons were issued, the newspaper would not respect it.
A judicial source told The Daily Star that Acting Prosecutor Samir Hammoud had not yet made a decision regarding the case.
Reuters contributed to this article.