Behind the Lines: Silence speaks volumes in Lebanon

Arrest of Beirut’s former information minister shows growing Lebanese willingness to challenge Assad, Hezbollah.

Lebanon's Michel Samaha 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Lebanon's Michel Samaha 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Lebanon’s former information minister, Michel Samaha, who is closely linked to the embattled regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, was arrested in Lebanon last week. Samaha has since confessed to involvement in the transfer of explosives from Syria to northern Lebanon.
The explosives were intended for use in a bombing campaign designed to increase sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
That the authorities in Lebanon sought to arrest a senior, Syria-linked figure such as Samaha is itself worthy of note. That pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon allowed the arrest to take place, and have organized no major protests against it, is yet more significant.
The arrest of Michel Samaha reveals the nervousness of the dominant pro-Syrian element in Lebanon, as the Syrian civil war grinds on and the Assad regime erodes. It is also a tentative indication of renewed confidence on the part of anti-Assad, anti- Hezbollah forces in the country.
There was never any serious chance that Lebanon would remain immune to the turmoil gripping Syria. Syria’s occupation of its smaller neighbor ended only in 2005.
Since then, in its own unique way, the Assad regime made sure that its power and influence remained, exercised by other means. The politics and governance of the two countries are inextricably linked.
Since January 2011, pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian elements have held exclusive executive power in Lebanon. Their ascendancy was built on the military power of Hezbollah, the haplessness and weakness of their opponents and the menacing presence of neighboring Syria.
The ascendancy of the Iranian-led “resistance axis” in Lebanon looked like a done deal. But the uprising in Syria has shifted the balance.
The Shia and Alawi “resistance axis” of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah is currently engaged in an all-out war to preserve its Syrian element. It has sacrificed much of the kudos it built up in recent years as the most potent military challenge to Israel. Instead, its military assets are today in use in an openly sectarian battle against Sunni forces sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The plot of which Michel Samaha was a part appears to have been a Syrian attempt to launch a destabilizing campaign of terror in Lebanon. The intention, according to Lebanese media outlets, was to carry out a series of bombings in the Akkar area of northern Lebanon, which would then be blamed on Sunni Islamist extremists.
The details of this operation are familiar.
The Syrian regime has long been a proponent of the “strategy of tension.” It has a long record of constructing phantom Sunni jihadi groups, such as Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham, and using them to spread fear and uncertainty.
Such activity can be useful in a variety of ways. It can be utilized to justify countermeasures.
It can intimidate opponents and send a message. Syria has also made use of genuine Sunni jihadis, and it is quite possible that the operation of which Samaha was a part would also have involved Lebanese Sunni Islamists. The charges against Samaha also indicted two Syrian army officers, one of whom was General Ali Mamluk, the powerful head of national security.
The charge sheet read that Samaha and the officers planned to incite sectarian strife by “by targeting the authority of the state and its civil and military institutions,” through “terrorist attacks.”
Lebanese analysts are currently poring over the details and the implications of the arrests. This being Lebanon, competing conspiracy theories abound. Yet, whatever the hidden intricacies, it is the easily visible evidence which is most fascinating in this case: The Internal Security Forces, which carried out the investigation preceding the arrests, is identified with the pro-Western element in Lebanon. Still, the Lebanese authorities, including the pro- Syrians at the top, would clearly have known about the arrests in advance.
Yet no one appears to have warned Samaha. One might have expected him to be conveniently absent when the police came to arrest him, but he was not.
There have been no furious protests from the Hezbollah/pro-Syrian side of the spectrum. These forces made a mockery of the special tribunal investigating the murder of Rafiq Hariri – making it clear that whatever the court decided, no suspects would be found. They neutralized and emasculated the March 14 movement when it tried to challenge Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state in May 2008.
Yet for Samaha – nothing. By contrast, two prominent pro-Syrian officials – Prime Minister Najib Mukati and President Michel Suleiman – have welcomed the arrest of the former minister and the foiling of the plot in which he played a part.
All of this suggests a subtle but unmistakable shift in the balance of power in Lebanon, due to events in Syria. Just as Bashar Assad is withdrawing his army from increasing parts of his country so as to consolidate those parts that he thinks he can hang on to, so the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian forces that control Lebanon are no longer attempting to defend every inch of ground. The arrest of Samaha suggests confusion, disunity and nervousness among the formerly triumphant pro-Assad camp in Lebanon. They are watching the massive force of Sunni Islamism rise next door, aware of its potentially disastrous consequences for them.
As the pro-Assad, pro-Iranian hegemony in Lebanon grows weaker, it begins to throw its less important members to the wolves. Still, posing as the impartial defenders of law and order won’t help the Shia ascendancy if Assad loses his fight for survival. At that point, a more general challenge to the status quo in Lebanon is likely to come. The first distant rumble of this may have been sounded last week with the arrest of Michel Samaha.