Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanon’s cabinet on Thursday explicitly rejected a prisoner-swap deal to secure the release of captured soldiers held by Syrian jihadists, opening the door for the Lebanese army to launch a military operation to free the soldiers.
“The Cabinet unanimously agreed that the safety of our sons kidnapped by takfirist organizations cannot be subject to compromise, negligence or swap because the state, with its institutions and security forces, will firmly confront anything that might endanger the lives of our sons,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters on Thursday.
Speaking following a cabinet session chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Joreige called for the Lebanese people to back the state’s position. “Combined efforts between the state and citizens should be geared towards fighting takfirist terrorists,” he said after families of the hostages took to the streets to demand Beirut do more to secure the soldiers’ release.
With pressure mounting, Lebanon’s cabinet said it did not rule out indirect negotiations with the kidnappers through “international channels.”
“The Cabinet affirmed its support for the missions carried out by the Army and security forces in Arsal and its environs and asked their commanders to take all necessary measures to bring the situation in Arsal under control and free the kidnapped soldiers,” Lebanon’s Information minister said, indicating that a military operation could be launched to secure the soldiers’ release.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front captured at least 23 Lebanese soldiers during clashes with the Lebanese army early August. ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front are fighting each other, in addition to the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria, with ISIS also extending its presence into Iraq.
ISIS claimed to have executed one of the soldiers earlier this week with a video posted on social media on Saturday allegedly showing an ISIS fighter decapitating the Lebanese soldier. The Lebanese army declined to comment on the video, but security and ISIS sources have confirmed to international media that the video is genuine.