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April 24, 2014 / 24 Nisan, 5774
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Mordechai Kedar: The Syrian Crisis Spills Over into Lebanon

A Palestinian woman kisses a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah

Photo Credit: Ahmad Khateib/Flash 90

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As a result of the bloody events in Syria beginning in March 2011, Lebanon has become a place of refuge for Syrians who live near the border between the two countries. This open border, through which for years Hizbollah has transferred whatever it desired from Syria, has now become an escape route for those Syrians who oppose the regime and seek shelter in Lebanon – even if only temporarily – from the cruelty of the “Shabikha”, the murderous gangs of the Asad regime. The Syrian army, despite the fact that it feels “at home” in Lebanon, usually refrains from pursuing Syrians who have found sanctuary there, so as not to offend the European countries, especially France, which see Lebanon as their “back yard”. Only in a very few cases did a military force cross the border into Lebanon in order to apprehend refugees who oppose the regime, and in a few cases, even shot Syrian canons into Lebanese villages where some Syrians had found shelter and sanctuary.

The society in Lebanon is polarized regarding the events in Syria: the Shi’ite Hizbollah, the main power in the state, actively supports Asad, and has sent more than a few of its soldiers – mainly snipers – to fight those citizens of Syria who are rebelling against the regime. Those who are opposed to Hizbollah, the “March 14 Coalition”, headed by Sa’ad al-Hariri, hold clear anti-Syrian positions. In the background there is always the possibility that the Syrian regime will collapse. If this occurs, the fear is that Hizbollah will quickly take over Lebanon and prevent the opposition from taking advantage of the weakness that may follow the loss of Syrian support. Nasrallah, of course, flatly denies that he has any such intentions. As long as the internal argument was conducted verbally, the words did not represent an immediate threat to the stability of the state.

However, lately an internal confrontation has developed, regarding the active support of the Sunni Muslim insurgents in Syria. For a long time rumors have been circulating about ships that arrive in the middle of moonless nights to locations near the recesses of the Lebanese coast; and boats with people in black clothing and covered faces who race from the shore towards the ships. The people clothed in black unload wooden crates full of “all good things,” and then the boats disappear back into the darkness from which they emerged. The crates are brought into Syria, where their contents – weapons and ammunition – serve the Free Syrian Army. The rumors about the boats were not substantiated until this month. In early May,  the Lebanese army apprehended a ship with the name “Lotef Allah 2″ in Lebanese territorial waters, which had departed from Libya and moored in Alexandria on its way to Lebanon. On this ship, a number of containers with light weapons were found and seized, but there were also a few French rocket launchers that had been sent last year to the insurgents in Libya. There were also explosives, and the whole shipment was sent by a Syrian company. The loading document, of course, did not reveal the actual contents of the shipment. Twenty one employees of the ship were arrested, but it is not clear what they knew about their deadly cargo.

The Lebanese army must certainly have known about the ship and its cargo and it is safe to assume that they got their information from an intelligence organization acting in cooperation with the Syrian regime, Iran or Russia, who were quick to register a complaint with the UN Security Council regarding the smuggling of weapons into Syria from the neighboring countries. Russia and Iran are very concerned about the increasing strength of the Free Syrian Army, which – thanks to the great number of weapons that flow to it- has recently been more successful in retaliating and killing many Syrian soldiers. The seizure of the weapons in the port of Tripoli immediately raised the question in Lebanon: who was supposed to receive the weapons and transfer them to the Syrian insurgents?

The question was answered  on Shabbat, May 12, when a twenty five year old man by the name of Shadi al-Mawlawi was arrested in Tripoli, along with five of his friends. The young man, a Lebanese Sunni and a member of a Salafi group, known as an activist working for the Syrian insurgents, was arrested when he returned from Syria on suspicion of assisting the insurgents and coordinating the transfer of the weapons that had arrived by ship. Tripoli has been in turmoil since the moment of his arrest: the Al-Manar channel, mouthpiece for the Hizbollah Shi’ites, claims that the ship belongs to Al-Qaeda, and served as the connection between global jihad organizations and the Syrian insurgents; while al-Mawlawi’s Sunni friends claim emphatically that he is simply a good young man, who – like many others – gave humanitarian support to Syrian refugees that managed to escape to Tripoli. The circumstances of his incarceration are interesting: according to some versions he was apprehended in the office of the Lebanese minister of the Treasury, Mahmud al-Safdi, in Tripoli, which brings up the possibility that al-Mawlawi might also have supported the Syrian insurgents monetarily, and that he was an emissary sent by members of the political establishment in Lebanon who are engaged in plotting against the Asad regime.

It’s important to note that the body that carried out the arrest – the General Security agency – is an arm of the Lebanese regime, but every Lebanese citizen is aware that this organization takes instructions from Hizbollah, that is, from Hassan Nasrallah, who is doing everything in his power to support his good friend and avid admirer, Bashar al-Asad. It could even be that the demand to arrest Al-Mawlawi came straight from Damascus. The fact that al-Mawlawi is identified with a Salafi Bedouin group works against him, since the Salafis are perceived as a threat to the whole social and political order of the Arab and Islamic world, because they recognize no ruler but Allah, and believe that no legal framework that was determined by man can compete with the perfection that is Islamic Shari’a law.

The Barrel of Gunpowder

The arrest of Al-Mawlawi was enough to ignite one of the most sensitive areas in Lebanon, the arena of Tripoli. This city, second largest in Lebanon, comprises several quarters, each of which hosts a distinct group: Muslims, Christians and Alawites. In the north of the city are two adjacent neighborhoods: Bab al-Tibbaneh, populated by Sunni Muslims, and above it Jabal Mohsen, an Alawite area. The tension between these two sectors has existed for dozens of years, and the constant agitating factor is the way that each group relates to the Syrian regime: the Alawites support it heart and soul, while the Sunnis would do anything to get rid of it. And this political argument must be considered in the context of the religious background: The Alawites are perceived as non-Muslims. In fact, Ibn Taymiyya, the Muslim sage of the 14th century, wrote of them that they “akhfar min el-Yehud wal-nasara” (“are worse infidels than the Jews and the Christians”). He described precisely their treachery and the damage that they have caused to Islam, principally as a result of their cooperation with the Christian crusaders.

The negative perception of the Alawites has caused hundreds of years of persecution and oppression by the Muslims, especially during the period of the Ottoman Empire; thus they traditionally live in the mountains, which affords them refuge and shelter from their Muslim enemies. In Western Syria they populate the Ansariyya Mountains, and their neighborhood in Tripoli is also built on a mountain, (Jabal Mohsen). The men are armed to the teeth and their houses are fortified. Despite the fact that they are a small minority of the residents of Tripoli – only 5 percent- their absolute number, 30,000, gives them a feeling of power, especially because the area is only 18 kilometers from the Syrian border.

After many years of conflicts between Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli, the “mitaq sharaf” (Covenant of Honor) was signed in 2008 between all the sectarian groups in the city. According to the covenant, all disagreements must be solved peacefully. However in Lebanon, an agreement is honored only as long as it is in the interests of its parties to honor it, and the moment that one party stops regarding it within their interest, the agreement becomes nothing more than a piece of paper. Ever since the bloody events that broke out in Syria 14 months ago, a number of conflicts have erupted between the Muslims and the Alawites in Tripoli, because the communities support opposite sides in the Syrian theater. Each time a conflict erupts, it is halted after a few days of street battles, some fatalities, a few dozen wounded, burned-out cars and ruined businesses. It could be that the current conflict will end in the same way, but it could also be that things may spin out of control, because in Tripoli, there are those who are willing to gamble on the imminent collapse of the Alawite regime in Syria. Such a collapse will also cause the collapse of the support for the Alawite community in Tripoli and perhaps the time will come to “convince” them to flee to the North, to the Mountains of Ansariyya, the mountains where they came from long ago. They are aware of the miserable situation of the Alawite regime in Syria, so they defend themselves with violent acts, manifesting the Middle Eastern instinct to survive: “the best defense is a good offense.”

In the current round of street battles in Tripoli, RPG launchers and machine guns have been used, in addition to personal weapons. Snipers paralyzed the traffic in the streets in the north of the city, and the main route that leads northward to Syria was blocked. The Lebanese army was streaming armored personnel carriers and soldiers into the area, but the Sunni residents of Tripoli fear that the army, like the other branches of the regime, was acting in accordance with the dictates that come down from Damascus. The arrest of a group of Sunnis is perceived as crossing a red line, because the Sunni community is in a very precarious position, since the Shi’ite Hizbollah has become the strongest organization in Lebanon, stronger than even the official army of the state.

By Monday evening the skirmishes had resulted in eight fatalities and about fifty wounded. In the quieter parts of the city, the Sunnis organized a demonstration in support of Al-Mawlawi and his friends who had been arrested. They burned tires, blocked streets and set up protest tents,consistent with the tradition of the “Arab Spring”. The government, headed by Najib al-Mikati and President Michel Suleiman are exerting great effort to calm the situation without causing more fatalities among the population, because Tripoli of today resembles a barrel of gunpowder waiting to explode — and that might ignite all of Lebanon.

The Writing on the Wall

The fragile situation in Lebanon is no surprise, and anyone who understands the internal situation of this country knows that it is living on borrowed time. The state comprises five groups: Christians, Druze, Alawites and Muslims, who are divided into Shi’ites and Sunnis. The constitution, which is supposed to have organized the division of powers between the various groups was written by the French, who established Lebanon as a state for the Christians, principally the Catholic Maronite tribe. Lebanon is a “human experiment”, in which five Middle Eastern groups of humanity were gathered together, a constitution that was contrary to their culture was engineered for them, and it was hoped that the experiment would work. And indeed the arrangement worked for some years, with internal battles every few years, but the demography was stronger than all of the good intentions of the French: Instead of a state for the Maronites, Lebanon became a state for the Shi’ites.

The demographic story is simple: for hundreds of years, even while feudalism still dominated Lebanon, the Shi’ites were marginalized – socially, economically and politically. Because they were generally uneducated, they worked in vocations that were considered lowly, while the Christian elite formed the center of society, the economy and therefore also the political arena. And as in all other places in the world, where the groups that are marginalized have many children, and the elite sectors have fewer, the Shi’ites of Lebanon – who also engage in polygamy, marry at a young age and prohibit “family planning” – fulfilled the biblical passage “They were exceedingly fruitful and the Earth was filled with them.” The Christians on the other hand, froze their demographic growth because of monogamy, marrying – if at all – later in life, and “family planning.”

Because of their European education with the French touch, Christians tended to emigrate, while the Shi’ites, whose educational level is traditionally lower, tended to remain in the land of their birth while developing extensive contacts with Shiite concentrations of southern Iraq and Iran. Lebanon became the first country after the Islamic revolution of 1980 in Iran that the “exporting of the revolution” was implemented – propagandists came from Iraq and Iran to preach to those Shi’ites who had strayed from religion and adopted a secular way of life. Funds poured in to build schools and religious community centers and to support needy families, but the most important things were weapons and military training. These imbued in the Shi’ites witha sense of “Yes, we can!” – that the period of oppression was over for good, and that the future belonged to them. In their view, their militia Hizbollah (“Party of Allah”) emerged as the winner of the long conflicts with Israel, and their jihad justified leaving Hizbollah in possession of their weapons, despite the fact that all of the other Lebanese militias were disbanded after the Ta’if Accord of 1989. Today the Shi’ites use their military success as leverage in the political arena, where they have become the strongest body in Lebanon.

The Lebanese political arena is divided into two parts – the supporters of Hizbollah and its opponents; those who gambled on their success and joined them, against those who are trying to save themselves from the Shia-Iranian-Syrian hegemony. The disturbances in Tripoli are the direct result of this rivalry: the Alawites are an inseparable part of the Hizbollah coalition, while the Sunnis are not interested in being under the wings of the Nasrallah-Khamenei-Asad hegemony.

The support that Iran gives to Hizbollah and its friends is not the only instance of external involvement in Lebanon, as the weapons and the ammunition that the Sunnis in Syria and in Lebanon receive, by way of boats like “Lotf Allah 2″, are paid for by funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Emirates in the Gulf. The skirmishes in Tripoli, even if they will be forgotten as they were in the past, will break out again as long as the situation in Lebanon between Hizbollah and its opponents continues, and as long as Iran and Saudia Arabia do battle with each other, until the last drop of blood of the last Lebanese person.

From the tragedy of Tripoli and Lebanon we can draw several conclusions: in the Middle East it is not possible to establish a state with an Arab society and Western political characteristics; Iranian involvement – even the economic and cultural – will ultimately undermine Western cultural and political influence in the Middle East; and whoever legitimizes jihad against Israel receives terror in his own streets in return.

The question that remains unanswered is whether the West will continue to abandon its Sunni friends in Lebanon and Syria, and leave them to the tender mercies of the unholy trinity – Iran-Syria-Hizbollah – to subordinate them. Perhaps the West will wake up and understand that failure in Damascus and Tripoli could bring the Iranians to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, whose waves will carry them from the port of Tripoli straight to Europe.

Originally published at http://israelagainstterror.blogspot.com/2012/05/mordechai-kedar-syrian-crisis-spills.html

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About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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