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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral