Robert Fisk: Syria's conflict has crossed the border, and the ghost of Lebanon's civil war returns

Kidnappings in Beirut highlight a sectarian divide made worse by neighbouring violence

Share
Related Topics

Lebanese kidnappings 'stir memories of civil war'. Gulf Arabs flee Beirut. Lebanese Hezbollah sends 1,500 men to help Bashar al-Assad. Ex-Lebanese minister charged in Syria terror plot. The 'spill-over' – it's become the new cliché for Lebanon in the shadow of Syria's war – is fast becoming as dishonest as the lies invested in its promotion. So like gangrene, fear spreads across Lebanon when it needs a surgeon's dissection.

First, the kidnappings, 20 of them, all Sunni Muslims – Syrian businessmen, a Turk and a Saudi – near the airport road in Beirut, a highway controlled by the pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian and very much Shia Muslim Hezbollah. The Saudis, the Emiratis and Qatar have urged their citizens to flee the fleshpots of Beirut. And yes, kidnappings were fuel to the fire of the first weeks of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. But the reason for these abductions is a lot less clear.

We have to look at the case of one Hassan Selim Moqdad, for whom Beirut's latest hostages are held. A Lebanese Shia, he was seized by the Free Syrian Army inside Syria and videotaped babbling that he was a Hezbollah member, part of a 1,500-strong contingent of Hezbollah fighters sent to assist Assad. The Americans accused Hezbollah of assisting the Assad regime and thus further embittered those Lebanese Sunnis who hate Assad almost as much as they resent Hezbollah's MPs in the Lebanese parliament and its control of the Beirut government.

Now there happen to be about 17,000 Moqdads in Lebanon, all members of the same tribe but including not just Shia but Sunnis and Christian Orthodox as well. And Hassan Moqdad, far from arriving in Syria with a legion of Hezbollah fighters, had been staying there – this from his wife – since before the revolt began 18 months ago, because of financial problems in Lebanon. Hassan's money difficulties resolved, he was on his way home to Lebanon when he was kidnapped and transmogrified into a Hezbollah warrior. Hezbollah have denied that Moqdad was a member, just as they have insisted they've no militiamen fighting in Syria, a statement that may bear the merit of truth since Assad has plenty of plain-clothes Syrian gunmen without hiring any more from Lebanon.

The Hezbollah Party of God cannot deny that the 20 hostages in Beirut – all but six of whom had been released last night as Maher Moqdad (another of the famous 17,000) announced an end to such abductions – were all taken in an area which the government long ago effectively handed over to the party. In reality, however, the kidnappings symbolise not the power of Hezbollah but the utter impotence of the divided, self-abusive Lebanese government.

Maher Moqdad said one of the detained Syrians was an army lieutenant who wanted to join the rebels. Meanwhile, those same rebels claim to hold dozens of Iranian 'spies' captured on the Damascus airport road, although Iran says that all were visiting a shrine outside Damascus. But would Iranian secret agents really take a vulnerable bus to Damascus airport? The case is faintly similar to the six Iranian 'militiamen' captured in Homs who turned out to be legitimate power station workers.

Now that Michel Samaha, ex-minister, ex-MP, and Lebanese supporter of Assad, is charged with plotting to blow up Lebanese politicians on behalf of Syria's security major domo, General Ali Mamlouk, the 'terror conspiracy' – without a shred of evidence publicly revealed – has become fact. Like the mass of bank robberies around Beirut, the clan battles in the Bekaa Valley and the armed offensive against Lebanese troops trying to destroy the country's hashish fields, the whole shooting match doesn't exactly invite tourists and Gulf investors to sunny Beirut. Nor did it help when the Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, announced that the kidnappings "bring us back to the days of the painful (civil) war." Nor, I suppose, is there a surgeon who can put Lebanon together again.

Q&A: Why the war in Syria has crossed the border

Q. Why is the Syrian conflict spilling over the border?

A. The 17-month uprising is evolving into an increasingly sectarian civil war and many of the religious tensions on the ground are mirrored in Lebanon. Many Lebanese Shia Muslims support President Assad, as do the country's Alawites (the sect to which the Assad dynasty belongs). Lebanon also has a large population of Sunni Muslims who actively support the mostly Sunni uprising.

Q. Where does the Lebanese government stand?

A. Currently in government is the pro-Assad March 8 group, which is led by Hezbollah, a Shia militant group which along with Iran forms a key axis of support for Assad's regime. But the government must play a careful balancing act with regard to Syria so as not to inflame tensions.

Q. Why is politics so influenced by Syria?

A. Syrian peacekeepers moved into Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the country's own civil war in 1975, but became enmeshed in the conflict. It was only in 2005 – a full 15 years after the war ended – that Syrian troops pulled out. The withdrawal was triggered by mass street protests following the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, who wanted to roll back Syrian influence and whose death was blamed on Damascus. Few expect a war in Lebanon, but the longer the Syrian crisis drags on, the more destabilising it is for its smaller neighbour.

Loveday Morris

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
 

To hear the Yes campaigners, you’d think London was the most evil place on Earth

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam