x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A bomb plot shows Syria's weakening hand in Lebanon

A clear indication of Syrian decline in Lebanon is that both the president and the prime minister did not hesitate to endorse the incarceration of an intimate ally of Bashar Al Assad.

With much going on in the Middle East, few people seemed to notice a dramatic event in Lebanon last week: the arrest of Michel Samaha, a prominent pro-Syrian Lebanese former minister. This was followed by a legal accusation issued by the military judiciary against him and a senior Syrian intelligence officer, Ali Mamlouk, and Gen Mamlouk's deputy.

Mr Samaha, Gen Mamlouk and the deputy were charged with planning a series of bomb attacks in north Lebanon, with the aim of sowing strife between the different religious communities there. Leaks to media outlets suggested the former minister had confessed (although he was later said to have reversed himself). The plot was reportedly uncovered because the person Mr Samaha paid to plant the devices was an informer for Lebanon's Internal Security Forces.

Mr Samaha is not your average pro-Syrian Lebanese official. Though he was once a member of the Christian Kataeb Party, which is hostile to Syria, he switched allegiances before most others did, earning him a place of honour in Damascus. Mr Samaha is close to President Bashar Al Assad, has advised Syria's leadership, not least on its communication strategy, and has a wide web of contacts in foreign capitals.

As for Gen Mamlouk, he is an adviser to Mr Al Assad on security matters, heads Syria's National Security Bureau and was once in charge of Syria's most powerful civil intelligence service, the General Security Directorate. Although perhaps not quite a member of the innermost core of security chiefs, he is as close as a Sunni officer can hope to be. The accusation levelled against him, like that against Mr Samaha, effectively tarnishes Syria's president.

There were some accusations that Mr Samaha's arrest was politically motivated. The Information Branch of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, which conducted the investigation against the former minister, is close to the March 14 opposition, which opposes Syria. However, in the grey world of Lebanon's security politics, the arrest of so high-profile a Syrian partner would never have taken place without solid proof.

Apparently, Mr Samaha's contact provided the ISF with substantial evidence to make the case airtight. The reaction of pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon, including Hizbollah, was markedly subdued. President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati - both men who have maintained friendly ties with Mr Al Assad's regime - seemed to lend credence to the accusations.

Immediately, March 14 politicians called on Lebanon's government to sever diplomatic ties with Syria and expel the Syrian ambassador in Beirut. Under most circumstances, this would be perfectly understandable. However, because Lebanon's political class is so divided, that outcome is unlikely. The pro-Syrian Lebanese foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, refuses to deliver a protest to the ambassador before the investigation is finished. Recently, Mr Mansour displayed similar reluctance when Syrian forces killed Lebanese civilians in the border area.

Whatever the truth about Mr Samaha, his arrest is the latest sign that Syria's sway over Lebanon is eroding. Damascus still has its Lebanese friends, above all Hizbollah, but the reality is that even the Shia movement is beginning to prepare for a post-Assad order in Syria. The party actively supports the Syrian repression, but simultaneously seeks to anchor itself in a Lebanese consensus for the day after Mr Al Assad, which means minimising tension with the Sunni community.

In that context, something like the Samaha plot is precisely what Hizbollah may want to avoid. The party has hardly been innocent, and a few months ago it played a suspicious role in the arrest of a Sunni Islamist in Tripoli. However, it has also been careful not to leave fingerprints, and now may feel more than ever that Mr Al Assad's chances of surviving are negligible. Major Sunni-Shia conflict has been averted, but a few days ago there was a firefight between Sunni and Shia villages in the north that caught Hizbollah's attention.

There is also some question as to where Hizbollah's patron, Iran, stands on Syria. Sources suggest there is disagreement within the Iranian leadership. Some figures are insisting that the Islamic Republic must accept that Mr Al Assad is finished. Others, reportedly the Revolutionary Guard, are said to be uncompromising in defending the Syrian regime.

Some have interpreted Mr Samaha's supposed recruitment by Syria's intelligence services as an illustration of growing Syrian feebleness. Because Hizbollah is no longer willing to carry out assassination plots on behalf of Damascus, the argument goes, the Syrians now must rely on less professional help. Perhaps, but a clearer indicator of Syrian decline is that Mr Suleiman and Mr Mikati, along with the interior minister, Marwan Charbel, hardly batted an eyelid before endorsing the incarceration of an intimate of Mr Al Assad.

Indeed, when a Hizbollah parliamentarian momentarily criticised Lebanon's judiciary, Mr Charbel responded with unusual sharpness by implying that all groups in Lebanon would do best to collaborate with the judiciary. This was a clear reference to Hizbollah's refusal to hand over its members sought by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The Lebanese are old hands at reading Syrian power. In recent months, Mr Al Assad's inability to prevail, combined with growing disgust among all segments of Lebanese society with the barbarity of his army's actions, has shifted the mood in Lebanon. Mr Samaha's fate, but more than anything Gen Mamlouk's, shows that, for now at least, Syria's stranglehold over its smaller neighbour is loosening.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling