The bomb plot had all the hallmarks of a spy thriller: a former Lebanese politician gets caught with explosives by an informant using a camera-equipped pen and triggers a dawn raid by police.
The arrest of Michel Samaha, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Aug. 9 has resonated across the Middle East because it highlighted how the insurrection in Syria can spill over into neighboring states with a history of sectarian violence. Assad wants to galvanize opposition to the Sunni Muslims trying to depose him by stirring up tension in the region, said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
“This goes in line with the Syrian regime’s approach to try to convince the international community that they should be afraid of the rise of radical Sunnis,” Salem said by telephone. “The Syrians might also be signaling that instability and sectarian conflict can easily be exported to Lebanon.”
Supporters and opponents of Assad have clashed in the capital Beirut and the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Gulf states said last week their citizens should leave Lebanon because of the threat of kidnappings following a spate of tit-for-tat abductions linked to the conflict in Syria.
The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon warned on Aug. 17 of “an increased possibility of attacks,” including kidnappings and the potential for an upsurge in violence.
At least 20 Syrians were taken by the Meqdad clan that belongs to Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim community after a member of the extended family was kidnapped in Syria. The clan threatened to capture nationals of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, states that have supported the Syrian opposition.
The kidnappings and the Gulf warnings add to the tensions that have hurt economic growth in Lebanon. Tourism has fallen each month versus a year earlier from March 2011 to the end of the first quarter of this year, with total arrivals down 16 percent, and visitors from Asia slumping 60 percent, according to HSBC Holdings Plc. Tourism made up about 20 percent of economic output in 2010.
While Beirut hotel occupancy grew about 32 percent in the first six months of 2012, occupancy at summer resorts outside the capital plunged more than 50 percent in the same period, according to Pierre Achkar, president of Lebanon’s Syndicate of Hotel Owners since 1995. The fall comes as the country’s $39 billion economy is forecast to grow 2.4 percent this year, HSBC said in a July 3 report. That compares with a 7 percent expansion in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Christians, Shiites and Sunni Muslims each make up roughly a third of the population in Lebanon and the country fought its own civil war from 1975 to 1990. Assad, a member of the Alawites affiliated to Shiite Islam, has portrayed the unrest as a conflict with gangs of armed Sunni radicals with al-Qaeda sympathies intolerant of minorities such as Christians.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman called the bomb plot “horrific,” aimed at destabilizing his country. Sleiman said he saw the explosives and they were “scary,” according to an interview with several local papers published Aug. 18, including Annahar and Assafir. He said he hoped the plot was the work of individuals and not the official Syrian establishment.
Samaha’s lawyer, Malek al-Sayyed, said in a telephone interview on Aug. 17 that his client is entitled to the “presumption of innocence, the right of defense and secrecy of the investigation.”
The nature of the terror plot suggests Syria is getting increasingly desperate, according to Dan Darling, an analyst at defense-research firm Forecast International.
“The sloppy and amateurish manner in which it was carried out is emblematic of an embattled regime,” Darling said by telephone from Newtown, Connecticut. “It’s a reflection of a weakening of the Syrian regime.”
The timing of the attacks was to coincide with a four-day visit to the Sunni Muslim northern region of Akkar by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai that began on Aug. 13, the Daily Star newspaper cited unidentified security sources as saying. An assault on a senior Christian figure would have had “complex” consequences, Salem said.
Judge Sami Sader, the government’s deputy commissioner at the Military Tribunal in Beirut, charged Samaha and two officers, including a top security chief, with plotting to assassinate religious and political figures, the government’s official National News Agency reported.
The bombs were prepared by the two Syrians and Sader referred the case to military judge Riad Abu Ghida, who is questioning Samaha, the news agency said on Aug. 11. Samaha was arrested in connection with “preparations for bombing attempts in several Lebanese areas” and a “large number of bombs” were found, the agency reported.
Al-Sayyed, the lawyer, said the leaks raise questions about the work of the security officials and harm the investigation. “He was judged before he spoke,” he said.
The plot has stunned the Lebanese because of the involvement of Samaha, who served as information minister in the early 90s and again in 2003. The Annahar daily declared in a front-page headline on Aug. 10 that “the detention of the prominent symbol of Assad stirs amazement.”
The 64-year-old is known more as a politician who has used his speaking skills rather than any military to defend the Syrian government. He is a holder of France’s Legion d’Honneur, a Canadian citizen and a friend of Assad, 46, according to the pro-Syria Assafir newspaper.
The recruitment of Samaha and his capture are indications of weaker Syrian security forces following the death of Major General Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy defense minister, said Hassan Mneimmneh, senior fellow at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization. Shawkat and three top military chiefs died in a bomb in Damascus last month.
There’s an “ongoing, slow collapse of the Syrian security system,” said Mneimmneh. “Assef Shawkat was part of the inner circle. Those promoted to replace him and those who died with him were members of the support structure. Those are the kinds of losses you cannot recover from.”
The pro-Syria camp in Lebanon, including the militant Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, has been largely silent about the indictments. Ibrahim al-Moussawi, head of Hezbollah’s media relations office, said by phone the party has not issued any official statement regarding Samaha. He did not elaborate.
It would be costly for Hezbollah, which has always tried to show itself as a pan-Arab rather than a Shiite group, to be involved in a sectarian conflict, said Sami Nader, professor of international relations at Beirut’s St. Joseph University.
“The Syrians want to play the sectarian bomb,” said Nader. “Knowing that the price will be high and it will lose its Arab dimension and turn into a Shiite boutique, could Hezbollah afford the current strategy of Assad which is playing the sectarian card?”