Middle East
1:06 am
Wed August 22, 2012

Syrian Conflict Stokes Unease In Lebanon

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 7:43 am

In Lebanon, a wave of kidnappings and an alleged plot to destabilize the country with bombings — both related to the uprising in Syria — are shaking Lebanon's precarious sectarian balance.

That's been apparent on al-Mokdad Street in south Beirut, which has been tense in recent days. The Mokdads are a large Shiite clan who control the street that is named for them. Young men with pistols in their pockets cruise the street on motor scooters, acting as the clan's lookouts.

Earlier this month, rebels in Syria kidnapped clan member Hassan al-Mokdad. Afterward, some of his brethren hit the streets in Lebanon wearing ski masks, carrying assault rifles and seeking revenge.

The Syrian rebels claimed that Mokdad is a member of Hezbollah, which the Mokdad clan denies. Hezbollah is the militant Shiite Muslim group that is armed by Iran, which is an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Sitting in the busy family compound, clan spokesman Maher al-Mokdad tells how the family first issued an ultimatum.

"Release our son, or we're going to kidnap Syrian and Turkish citizens," he says bluntly. "Twenty-four hours passed and nobody released Hassan, so we did what we threatened. We kidnapped people."

Revenge Kidnappings Blasted As Anarchy

Members of the Mokdad clan abducted more than 20 Syrians and a Turkish citizen, whom they believed supported the rebels. Protesters, meanwhile, burned tires on the road to the Beirut international airport last week, briefly causing one Air France flight to be diverted to — of all places — Damascus, Syria.

Mokdad concedes that some of their intelligence in the kidnapping operation was flawed.

"The Mokdad military arm went out and picked targets. Unfortunately, we got almost 21 innocents," he says, quickly adding that they were all released.

Mokdad sneers at the Lebanese government's impotence and inability to secure his relative's release. He says he met with Lebanon's foreign minister, who seemed only concerned about freeing the Turkish businessman the Mokdads are holding.

Mokdad says his fellow clansmen have no choice but to take the law into their own hands. This is part of the tribal code that prevails in the Bekaa valley, where according to reports in the Lebanese media, the Mokdad clan presides over the illicit production of hashish.

Beirut-based journalist Hazem Saghieh describes it as a world of criminal machismo.

"The ideology of tribalism is very much based on manhood, and being able to challenge the state, being able to cross the borders illegally, being able to get your bread and butter through force," he says.

Politicians and commentators have blasted the kidnappings as anarchy. Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party, is calling for a state of emergency.

"It's as if Lebanon has no semblance of being a country, no constitution, nor rule of law," he says. "Armed groups running around doing what they please. They draft their own foreign policy, speak on behalf of the country and kidnap whomever they want."

The government is also furious that, following the kidnappings, Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, warned their citizens to get out of Lebanon and avoid travel there. Lebanon relies heavily on tourism and investment from Gulf Arabs.

Arrests In Alleged Bomb Plot

On Aug. 9, the Lebanese government announced the arrest of Michel Samaha, the former information minister. Samaha is known as a public relations adviser to Assad, Syria's embattled leader.

Lebanese security forces also charged Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk with giving Samaha explosives: so-called "sticky bombs," which are usually attached to the undersides of cars. The government says Samaha confessed to a plot to assassinate top religious leaders in order to set off a war among rival sects.

If the bombings had succeeded, journalist Saghieh says, they "would have triggered a civil war which is unstoppable for years and years to come. So it's a very criminal thing that was intended for this country."

The Lebanese state is weak in part by design, with religious sects and their political parties sharing power within the government. But challenging the Syrian regime by arresting Samaha was a bold move on the government's part, says American University of Beirut political scientist Hilal Khashan.

"Samaha is not an ordinary person," Khashan says. "I am absolutely sure that Internal Security Forces, had they not had damning evidence, they would not have resorted to such a dramatic action."

Analysts say chaos in Lebanon could benefit the Syrian regime in several ways. Assad could divert attention from the civil war battering his regime. He could also blame the chaos on al-Qaida, which Western governments fear may be aiding Syrian rebels, and therefore inhibit the U.S. and other governments from arming them.

But, Khashan explains, each Lebanese faction has foreign patrons, all of whom are now preoccupied with Syria. This is especially true of Iran, whose proxy is the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, whose military wing is stronger than the Lebanese army.

"Iran did not create Hezbollah in order to exhaust and deplete its resources in the alleys of Beirut," Khashan says. "They created it in order to come to their rescue should a regional war break out. Therefore, engaging Hezbollah in a civil war in Lebanon defeats the idea behind its creation."

Lebanon's sectarian and political divisions are unquestionably deep, says Khashan, but for now, the consensus seems to be that nobody wants a repeat of the country's devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

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Transcript

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A recent wave of kidnappings in Lebanon has prompted some governments in the region to warn their citizens against traveling there. At the same time, the Lebanese government is investigating an alleged Syrian plot to destabilize the country. From Beirut, NPR News's Anthony Kuhn has more on how events in neighboring Syria are shaking Lebanon's precarious balance among its religious factions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: There have been some tense times recently on south Beirut's al-Mokdad Street. The Mokdads are a large Shiite clan who control the street that bears their name. Earlier this month, clan member Hassan al-Mokdad was kidnapped by rebels in Syria. Some of his brethren hit the streets wearing ski masks, carrying assault rifles and seeking revenge.

Sitting in the busy family compound, clan spokesman Maher al-Mokdad tells how the family first issued an ultimatum.

MAHER AL-MOKDAD: Release our son, or we're going to kidnap Syrian and Turkish citizens. Twenty-four hours passed, and nobody released Hassan, so we did what we threatened. We kidnapped people.

KUHN: They abducted more than 20 Syrians and a Turkish citizen, whom they believed supported the rebels. Mokdad concedes that some of their intelligence was flawed.

AL-MOKDAD: The Mokdad military arm went out and picked targets. Unfortunately, we got almost 21 innocents. We released, you know, them.

KUHN: Mokdad sneers at the Lebanese government's impotence and inability to secure the release of his relative. He feels his fellow clansmen have no choice but to take the law into their own hands. This is part of the tribal code that prevails in the Bekaa Valley, where according to local media, the Mokdad clan presides over the illicit production of hashish.

Beirut-based journalist Hazem Saghieh describes it as a world of criminal machismo.

HAZEM SAGHIEH: The ideology of tribalism is very much based on manhood and being able to challenge the state, being able to cross the borders illegally, being able to get your bread and butter through force.

KUHN: Politicians and commentators have blasted the kidnappings as anarchy. Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party, called for a state of emergency.

SAMIR GEAGEA: (Through translator) It's as if Lebanon has no semblance of being a country - no constitution, nor rule of law, armed groups running around doing what they please. They draft their own foreign policy, speak on behalf of the country and kidnap whomever they want.

KUHN: On August 9th, the Lebanese government announced the arrest of a former information minister, Michel Samaha. It also charged Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk with giving Samaha explosives. Their alleged aim was to assassinate top religious leaders in order to set off a war among rival sects.

The Lebanese state is weak, in part, by design, with religious sects and their political parties sharing power within the government. But challenging the Syrian regime by arresting Samaha was a bold move on the government's part, says American University of Beirut political scientist Hilal Khashan.

HILAL KHASHAN: Samaha is not an ordinary person, you know. I am absolutely sure that had the Internal Security Forces, had they not had damning evidence, they wouldn't have resorted to such a dramatic action.

KUHN: Analysts say chaos in Lebanon could benefit the Syrian regime in several ways. President Bashar al-Assad could divert attention from the civil war battering his regime. He could blame the chaos on al-Qaida, which Western governments fear may be aiding Syrian rebels.

But, Khashan explains, each Lebanese faction has foreign patrons, all of whom are now preoccupied with Syria. This is especially true of Iran, whose proxy is the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, whose military wing is stronger than the Lebanese army.

KHASHAN: Iran did not create Hezbollah in order to exhaust and deplete its resources in the alleys of Beirut. They created it to come to their rescue should a regional war break out. Therefore, engaging Hezbollah in a civil war in Lebanon defeats the idea behind its creation.

KUHN: Lebanon's sectarian and political divisions are unquestionably deep, says Khashan, but for now, the consensus seems to be that nobody wants a repeat of the country's devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.