The arrest Saturday of former Lebanese media minister Michel Samaha in Beirut shocked local public opinion. Samaha had driven from Damascus to Beirut with 24 explosive charges and $170,000 in his trunk. He then handed them over to a government agent in a parking lot, requesting him to discharge the bombs in the country’s north during Ramadan to evoke sectarian violence.
Staunchly pro-Assad, Samaha was reportedly acting on behalf of Syria’s National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk. His arrest caused members of Lebanon’s March 14 camp, which opposes Assad, to call for severing diplomatic ties with Syria.
The Samaha affair marks a new stage in Syria’s crisis management strategy. By exporting the violence to Lebanon, either through cross-border attacks or internal sabotage, the Assad regime seeks to shift international attention from its violent crackdown against the domestic insurgency while heightening the risk of a regional sectarian flare-up, experts say.
On Tuesday, a second bombshell fell on Lebanon. Free Syrian Army fighters released a video showing the confession of a Shiite Lebanese man, Hassan Miqdad, admitting that he was a sniper sent by Hezbollah on August 3, along with 1,500 other fighters, to assist Bashar Assad’s forces in quashing the uprising.
Some in Lebanon called for the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, tasked with investigating the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, to look into the Samaha affair as well. Lebanese commentators began writing that, once again, Syria was stirring up trouble in their country.
The Samaha and Miqdad affairs highlight the weakness of the Lebanese state these days. As masked armed Miqdad militiamen vowed vengeance against the Syrian kidnappers of their kinsman, Lebanese security forces were nowhere to be found
The video shows Miqdad telling told his captors that the Hezbollah men were sent to Aleppo and Homs, while he was dispatched to the Shiite shrine of Saida Zainab in Damascus along with 250 other fighters.
“Why did you enter Syria, Hassan?” asks the interrogator.
“[Hezbollah chief] Mr. Hassan Nasrallah met with us and told us we must go to Syria to support the Shiite Syrian regime. He told us there were Sunni gangs called the Free [Syrian] Army,” answers Miqdad.
Hezbollah denied any association with Miqdad, as did members of his family.
Miqdad’s clan in the southern suburbs of Beirut promptly established an “armed wing” and abducted 30 Syrians, a Saudi and a Turk, whom they threatened to kill first if Hassan was not released by the Syrian rebels. Across Lebanon — as Syrian nationals continued to be abducted by Lebanese militias on Thursday — the country is quickly deteriorating into what Arab media is dubbing “security chaos.”
The Samaha and Miqdad affairs highlight the weakness of the Lebanese state these days. As masked armed Miqdad militiamen vowed vengeance against the Syrian kidnappers of their kinsman, Lebanese security forces were nowhere to be found.
But Lebanon is not the only target of Syria’s new strategy. Irshad Hurmuzulu, an adviser to Turkish President Abdullah Gul, told the London-based daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat on Monday that Syria had armed the Kurdish PKK rebels in the border region with Turkey in an attempt to destabilize Turkey as well.
“The [Syrian regime] will eventually be burned by the fire of terrorism,” Hurmuzulu tacitly threatened Assad. “This regime will be called to task for what it has done.”
‘Hezbollah is currently not in a position of strength internally. The Syrian uprising has placed it in a political conundrum.’
Syria, however, has chosen its battles cautiously. Aside from one report of clashes on its border with Jordan, it has so far maintained a peaceful relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom. And although it could unleash Hezbollah’s large rocket arsenal on Israel, it has so far chosen not to do so.
“I would be surprised if Hezbollah attacked Israel now,” Benedetta Berti, an expert on Lebanon and Syria at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, told The Times of Israel. “Hezbollah is currently not in a position of strength internally. The Syrian uprising has placed it in a political conundrum.”
Berti added that while Hezbollah tried to restrain Lebanese Shiites when 11 pilgrims were kidnapped in May, the organization has remained tight-lipped following Monday’s abduction of Miqdad.
“Everyone knows that Hezbollah calls the shots in Lebanon with regard to the Shiite street,” Berti said. “They probably want to send a message saying ‘look, we’re not getting involved and this is what’s happening’.”
Omri Nir, an expert on Lebanon at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said that in an extreme scenario, Syria could decide to attack Israel itself. If a Western coalition decided to attack Syria, Assad may train his weapons on Israel in order to unite the Arab world behind him if Israel retaliated.
Nir added that an Israeli strike on Iran was more likely to bring about retaliation by Hezbollah than a strike on Syria.
“I find it hard to imagine that Hezbollah will sit tight if Israel attacks Iran,” Nir told the Times of Israel.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have issued travel warnings to Lebanon and asked their citizens to leave the country immediately for fear of further abductions. An Air France airplane was even diverted for refueling from Beirut airport to Damascus Thursday.