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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

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.

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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