08/08/2014, 00.00
LEBANON - MIDDLE EAST
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Drawing the boundaries of the new Middle East with Christian blood

by Fady Noun
The plight of Iraqi Christians was discussed at the meeting of Eastern Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs in northern Lebanon. The tentacles of the jihadist octopus stretch even as far as Lebanon. The battle for Arsal symbolises the rising against the Islamist play. Doubts and worries surround the Lebanese army's ability to face threats and the country's deadlocked presidential election.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - What is happening in Iraq? Are the boundaries of the new Middle East being drawn with the blood of Christians? These are questions every Lebanese is asking, their eyes turned to the Nineveh Plain where a hundred thousand Christians fled on Thursday under the hot sun, with temperatures above 40 degrees, with Jihadists and religious darkness on their trail.

Meeting at the See of the Maronite Patriarchate in Dimane (North Lebanon), Eastern Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs reacted yesterday to this tragedy by asking Muslim civil and religious authorities to issue fatwas and laws outlawing the cultural genocide that is underway in the regions conquered by the jihadists. Without explicitly doing so, the prelates have also thought about calling on the United Nations to intervene in Iraq.

In an appeal issued in Baghdad, the Chaldean patriarch, who was represented at the meeting in Dimane, lamented the lack of coordination between the Iraqi central government and Kurdish authorities, which is allowing the Islamist octopus extend its tentacles. "The situation is going from bad to worse," he said signing off his cry for help.

This is the same darkness that the Lebanese army was able to push back when it took control of the Arsal area, which had fallen into the clutches of Islamist groups a few days ago. It is unclear what led these gangs to cut the branch on which they were sitting, especially since the city where they had come to rest, get treatment and resupply is an entirely Sunni city.

The only comfort that can be found in the more or less peaceful outcome of this bloody episode that left 20 Lebanese military dead is that the town has proved restive under the jihadist yoke and that the latter's brutal behaviour lost them even more of their aura.

Do we owe the evacuation of Arsal to the Rally of Muslim Scholars (Salafists)? This issue deserves our attention. The battle is certainly not over, but it is equally certain that its resolution was not military and that the Rally of scholars was for something.

Certainly, no compromise is possible with terrorism, but with 39 hostages in their hands (22 military officers and 17 security forces), jihadists had a card they probably played to get out of Arsal in one piece and that they will continue to play in order to put pressure on the government.

In exchange for the freedom of their prisoners will they ask for the release of the Islamic State leader Imad Ahmad Jomaa, who is military custody? Could the hostages be used as a bargaining chip to negotiate Hizbollah's withdrawal from Syria? Only time will tell.

In any event, the upsurge of the jihadist threat in Lebanon prompted Prime Minister Tammam Salam to phone King Abdullah of Jordan, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

The Jordanian king pledged assistance to the Lebanese army and tasked his foreign minister to follow up this issue, the national news agency said. We do not know what he discussed with the Turkish Prime Minister and the emir of Qatar, and whether Lebanon is talking to these two states about jihadists with the same language.

What the Battle of Arsal has also revealed is something that senior officers had highlighted for years, namely the weakening of the military as an institution. Currently, its average age far exceeds what is needed, whilst its resources are inadequate to fulfil its domestic mission, the fight against terrorism. The cabinet's decision to recruit 5,000 more soldiers is a feeble attempt to fill the gap. It will certainly come at a cost that we will probably be covered with money from the Saudi gift promised by King Abdullah.

Much has been said in recent days about the reasons Saudi Arabia is delaying its gift of US$ 3 billion in French military equipment. Discussion has focused on a commission whose payment continues to be overdue. Perhaps. There is always some wrongdoing in arms dealing, experts say. But should the Lebanese not bear some responsibility for the delay? To which government, in which Lebanon and under the mandate of which president should the Saudi gift go? Are we not forgetting that Lebanon has been without a president for three months? Lebanon's constitutional vacuum and the uncertainty about its future are all obstacles to the granting of a gift that - let us be charitable - must not be granted blindly.

Hence, we have come full circle. Events in Arsal and the cabinet's decision raise the distressing question of presidential elections. Certainly, parliament has been summoned for 12 August to elect a president. But we should have no illusions about the matter, which is bound to remain undecided for a long time. Meanwhile, Lebanon (and the whole Middle East) is burning, students are hostages of teachers who lost all sense of ethics whilst critics keep on rambling on TV.

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