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Opinion: A Meaningless Distinction | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A screen-grab taken from a YouTube video on July 24 shows the former Lebanese soldier who defected to the Al-Nusra Front, Atef Saadeddine (L), embracing a fighter from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The Lebanese army has insisted on limiting its comments on reports about the decision by one of its soldiers to leave his post and join the Al-Nusra Front. It said only that it was “an isolated incident and the soldier is a deserter, not a defector.”

Lebanese military intelligence has worked hard to circulate its comments to the media in order to contain reports about the incident, and this has raised many cynical responses, as well as warnings against a policy of ignoring these disturbing events in Lebanon.

Downplaying the issue of the solider, Atef Saadeddine, who defected from the Lebanese army and joined the Al-Nusra Front in an act that was unprecedented in Lebanon, will not make the issue go away.

A young man, who appeared to be a defecting soldier, appeared in a video explaining that he was motivated by what he said was Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese army. The soldier talked at length about Hezbollah’s influence and the “injustices” he said it inflicted on Lebanon’s Sunnis.

The six-minute video is similar to those issued by the Syrian opposition at the start of the Syrian uprising, and in it the soldier shows his ID card as proof of his tale, recounting his story while sitting at a table with the flag of the Al-Nusra Front draped behind him. The video ends with the entry of two men, both masked and armed, who then embrace Saadeddine and congratulate him on his defection.

What is noticeable in the video is the clarity of the soldier’s speech. It is true that the video stops and starts a few times, and has clearly been edited. But something in his performance and the terminology he uses gives the impression that his story did not arise from nothing, and was not simply a rehash of a political discussion that has taken place in Lebanon at different times—honestly in some cases, and with an unmistakable sectarian bias in others.

In fact, the defection incident is not only a slap in the face for the Lebanese army, it is also a blow to those who believed, even if only a little, that Lebanon could survive the fires of the Syrian conflict unscathed.

The circulation of terms such as “desertion” and the insistence that the media should avoid using the term “defector” on the grounds that it is anti-army, will not work.

It is true that this defection is an individual incident, as the army says, but it has happened within a disturbing and provocative general political context. If this context worsens, it could offer an incentive to others to commit dangerous acts that could have damaging effects on all of the Lebanese people. The past few months and years have been full of incidents that inevitably have led to defections of this type, raising serious concerns about the growth of the more general and widespread dangers that Lebanon faces.

Looking back, it is clear that the Lebanese army has been marginalized in favor of Hezbollah and its allies since the early 1990s, as the army was barred from being the only armed group responsible for the borders and the defense of the homeland. The events whereby the Lebanese army was targeted because it was a force that represented state authority are countless, but they have become more visible in recent months.

The openness of Lebanon’s borders, when it comes to Hezbollah and its presence in Syria, and the ease by which members of the Al-Nusra Front infiltrate the country and launch attacks on the army and other targets, are aspects of the crisis. As for the sectarian division and the political impasse it has caused, they have many more sides, but all are equally important.

The video of the defector is a fresh warning of the collapse that threatens Lebanon, both as an idea and as a functioning state. In truth, the terms “defector” or “deserter” are meaningless in a country where everybody has become either a deserter or a defector.