By Firas Maksad, Special to CNN
Firas Maksad is a consultant on the Middle East and director of New Policy Advisors, a Washington D.C. advisory group. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Few thought that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would relinquish power without attempting to drag others in the region down with him. It’s a game of political blackmail that the Syrian regime has perfected over its four decades of control. Since the uprising began in March of last year, al-Assad has allegedly given Kurdish rebels a free hand in fighting Turkey and shelled Jordanian territory. Yet, it is neighboring Lebanon that al-Assad has taken as the regime’s prime hostage.
Beirut recently awoke to the seemingly unbelievable news that former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha had been arrested over allegations of involvement in a planned bombing campaign. The evidence seems overwhelming, and Samaha appears to have confessed on tape to plotting to target Christian leaders with the aim of blaming Sunni extremists and cementing the Christian community’s support for al-Assad’s supposedly secular regime. According to Lebanese security sources, when asked why he would do such a thing, the former minister replied, “This is what Bashar wants.”
But the most shocking thing wasn’t the plot itself, but that Lebanese officials, many of whom have been targets of Syrian car bombs in recent years, found the courage to arrest a member of al-Assad’s close circle. They also filed charges against Syria’s national security advisor for allegedly providing the explosives.
For the Lebanese, this was all too good to be true and prompted speculation over whether the ruler of Damascus was so weakened that Beirut officials now dared to cross him? Social media buzzed with jokes about what would befall Lebanon when the al-Assad sought its revenge. And, sure enough, it appears to have done so.
A kidnapping campaign swept through Lebanon last week, jolting the country back to political reality and stripping state institutions of their recently found sense of authority. Within hours, masked gunmen claiming to be the armed wing of a Shia clan captured at least 20 of al-Assad’s opponents, claiming the move was in retaliation for the capture of one of the clan’s members by the Free Syrian Army. They blocked the main highway leading to Beirut International Airport, and warned nationals of Arab countries who support the Syrian rebellion to leave Lebanon immediately.
The kidnappings seem to be acting as a dual message directed at the Syrian rebels, those who support them in Beirut, and beyond: First, this is a preview of what awaits Lebanon and the region should you push us further. Second, we may be losing control over parts of Syria, but Beirut is still ours.
It’s too early to understand the full implications of the violence still unfolding in Lebanon and whether it will drag the country closer to the Syrian abyss. After all, Hezbollah is a leading partner in the current government and presumably has a stake in preventing an all out Sunni-Shia conflict. But the group’s leadership is also under growing pressure to act from an anxious Shia community and a fledgling ally in Damascus. Can it get away with what it perceives as limited and deniable military actions without triggering a backlash that tips the country into civil war?
Whatever the case, these latest moves are more a sign of desperation than lasting power. The Syrian president now has to resort to botched bombing plots in Beirut to shore up Christian support for his regime. And by continuing to stand by al-Assad, Hezbollah is further isolating itself and pitting a Shia community against a Sunni majority in the Middle East.
And, despite the risks, it’s clear Lebanese authorities are pushing back and demonstrating a determination to maintain order despite their limited capacity. They are deserving of U.S. and international support, including much needed military training and equipment. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a former commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, is worthy of particular praise for his current leadership.
It may have become cliché to argue that Lebanon and the region won’t find stability before the al-Assad regime is forced out of power, but it’s still no less true for that. Until the battle for Damascus is won, Beirut will remain on a knife edge.