Exploring the more subtle signs of potential sectarian spill-over into Lebanon

The former Information Minister has been apprehended trying to smuggle explosives into Lebanon. Away from the media focus on street clashes, subtler political trends threaten Lebanon's years of building a fragile peace.

Shane Farrell
3 September 2012

Since I last wrote on the likelihood of violence spreading from Syria into Lebanon there have been a number of developments worth detailing; some deadly but of little apparent consequence to the stability of the nation, others without violence but with the potential to ignite a sectarian conflict. To date an uneasy peace prevails throughout most of the country, but cross border fighting between the Syrian army and armed rebels is a regular reminder of the war’s proximity.

The most significant of these developments was the arrest, on August 9, of former Information Minister Michel Samaha in connection with a seizure of two dozen explosive devices. According to a local news network Samaha delivered the explosive devices and $170,000 to a person he tried to recruit, not knowing that the individual was working with Lebanese security services and relaying information to the body.

To the surprise of many political commentators, the March 8 coalition, which heads the government and is largely supportive of the Syrian regime, did not rush to defend Samaha against the allegations. Although the case is confidential, several leaks suggest that the evidence against Samaha is compelling and that the man accused acknowledged “up to 90% of the evidence gathered by security forces.”

The precise target of these explosives is not clear, but Lebanese judicial authorities charged Samaha with plotting ‘terrorist attacks’ with a view to sowing sectarian strife between the different religious communities there. 

The incident is especially significant because Samaha is a close ally of the Syrian regime and a personal friend of Bashar Al Assad. Moreover, General Ali Mamluk, the Damascus-based national security chief and advisor to the Syrian President, was also charged in the plot, strongly hinting that Lebanese authorities believed higher echelons of the Syrian government were behind the move.

Reaction was swift with politicians belonging to the opposition March 14 alliance, which opposes Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs, immediately calling for the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador from Lebanon and cutting off diplomatic ties with Damascus. But with a government largely allied to Syria, these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

While the uncovering of the plot widened the political rift in Lebanon, the successful detonation of the bombs could have been devastating for the stability of the country. How this might have played out is, of course, guesswork. Notably, the arrest came shortly ahead of the visit by Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, the head of the largest Christian community in Lebanon, to north Lebanon. This caused speculation that al-Rai was the target and that blame would have been placed in the hands of Islamist groups to fit the Syrian regime’s line of a strong Al Qaeda presence in the revolution.  Had such a scenario played out, it could have brought sectarian tension in the country to boiling point.

A second important development linked to the conflict in Syria was the kidnapping of over 20 Syrians and a Turk by a large Shia family, the al-Moqdads. Unusually, the family claims to have a ‘military wing’ which was said to have been responsible for the kidnappings, as well as a spokesperson, Maher al-Moqdad. According to the family spokesperson, the kidnappings were a response to the detention in Syria of a family member by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of armed rebels fighting Syrian government forces.  

Although a number of Syrians have been kidnapped in Lebanon since the conflict in Syria began, the al-Moqdads incident received unprecedented media attention. For one, the kidnappings took place in Beirut, throwing the capital into high alert for a number of days. The incident also appeared to be a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt, with the family spokesperson surrounded by masked gunmen releasing a statement threatening further kidnappings if their relative was not released by the FSA. Journalists were allowed into the home of the spokesperson, who added that Turkish and Qatari citizens would also be targeted, prompting Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other Gulf Arab countries to warn its citizens to leave Lebanon.

Importantly, the incident appears to highlight the limits of the two leading Shia parties, Hezbollah and Amal, in controlling the actions of members of the sect. Hezbollah, in particular, has intervened on a number of occasions to quell potentially inflammatory situations in Lebanon since the conflict began in Syria, most recently in May when the party’s leader appealed for calm in a televised speech and warned his followers against carrying out any revenge attacks on Syrians.

But the al-Moqdads, who live in Hezbollah’s heartland of Dahiyeh, showed that they operate outside of the party’s control. Nasrallah even stated in a televised speech following the al-Moqdad incident that neither Hezbollah nor Amal were “controlling the situation on the ground”. Thus, although the media story has moved on and a number of the kidnapped were released, the al-Moqdad incident may highlight the potential for renegade groups inciting strife in the country and the limits of political parties to stop them. If, on the other hand, Hezbollah assisted the al-Moqdad’s in its kidnapping spree (as one prominent political commentator has argued), the incident potentially shows that it is not as determined to keep sectarian strife at bay as its leader’s rhetoric would suggest.

A third incident which fomented tensions and received a vast amount of interest from the international press was the bout of clashes that occurred over a number of days in the northern city of Tripoli in late August.

Deadly fighting took place between the arch-rival neighbourhoods of Jabal Mohsen, co-religionists and close supporters of the Assad regime, and Beb al Tebbeneh, a working class neighbourhood comprised of anti-Assad Sunnis. Although media reports vary on precise figures, several people were confirmed killed and dozens were injured.

Although these clashes received a lot of attention and some papers pointed to this as evidence of a spread of sectarian violence to Lebanon, it should be noted that civil strife between the two communities has been ongoing since the Lebanese fifteen-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Moreover, while developments in Lebanon and Syria can sometimes spark clashes in Tripoli, the opposite is rarely true as violence that begins in Tripoli is usually contained in the battling neighborhoods.

The killing of key political or religious figures, however, is more likely to affect a bigger segment of the country’s population and extend further across the country. It should be noted that the Samaha plot was not the only incident that may have targeted a leading community leader in the past year. A number of assassination attempts – or presumed attempts – have occurred on the lives of senior politicians in Lebanon, including the leader of a major Christian party and a prominent opposition politician.

Thus, while deadly street clashes may appear to be the clearest reflection of the Syrian conflict spreading to Lebanon, it is important to also pay attention to developments not always picked up on by the international press. For these incidents, had they followed a different path, were potentially far more devastating than anything seen in the streets of Tripoli.

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