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Assad’s Ally Arrested

3:15 PM, Aug 17, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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Samaha was, after Hezbollah, perhaps Assad’s most valuable asset in Lebanon, where the former Lebanese information minister mediated between Damascus, its Beirut-based allies and Western journalists in an effort to sell the regime’s narrative. Samaha arranged hard-to-get meetings and interviews for foreign correspondents and was regularly quoted in the Western media. In a sense, this aspect of Samaha’s work became even more important after the Syrian uprising started in March 2011 when it became increasingly difficult and dangerous for journalists to get across the border. Nonetheless, his essential narrative has changed little over the years: the Sunnis are the problem, Syria and its allies are the solution.

For instance, here’s Adam Shatz, writing in the April 29, 2004 issue of the New York Review of Books: “According to Samaha … Hezbollah has been providing the Lebanese government with intelligence on Sunni extremists operating in refugee camps in southern Lebanon.”

Samaha’s essential message played on the post-9/11 concerns of Western journalists and policymakers who were incapable of seeing the tectonic shifts underway in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. In reality, the major problem was not a stateless network of Sunni jihadists, but a real nation-state with assets throughout the region and a nascent nuclear weapons program—Iran. Samaha brought his interlocutors back to the days when the World Trade Center towers had just fallen and reassured them that their fears then were still an accurate guide to the region: al Qaeda, and other Sunni extremists, constituted the real strategic issue in the region. Syria’s minority Alawite regime shared American concerns since Assad saw Sunni jihadists as a threat as well. As for Hezbollah, Syria’s praetorian guard in Lebanon and listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, the Shiite militia was effectively on the same side as Washington. By extension, so was the Islamic Republic of Iran.

What prevented the Americans from understanding their true interests, according to Samaha, was their relationship with Saudi Arabia. Here, Samaha found a willing dupe in the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, crusading this time out against the George W. Bush administration. Hersh’s March 5, 2007 article claimed that in an effort to counter Iran and Hezbollah, Dick Cheney led the U.S. effort to bolster “Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.” The New Yorker apparently turned the volume down on some of Hersh’s charges because when he spoke with CNN his argument was even more conspiratorially farfetched. Cheney and Elliott Abrams, Hersh claimed, brokered a private White House agreement with and Saudi prince Bandar “to support various hard-line jihadists.”

Presumably, the American flourishes come from Hersh’s own imagination, the rest from his Lebanese fixer. “It was Samaha,” according to Lebanese media,  “who helped organize several of Hersh’s Lebanese interviews for that article… And who reportedly handed Hersh the plum of his visit: a meeting with the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.”

After Hersh’s train wreck, many foreign journalists learned to be wary of Samaha’s services as well as the information that he provided. For instance, immediately after Samaha’s arrest last week, the Washington Post’s Beirut correspondent Liz Sly tweeted, “In Jan, Michel Samaha warned me that AQ is plotting bombings in Lebanon. Today, Samaha is in custody, accused of plotting bombings.”

Nonetheless, it worth noting that Samaha, in prison and apparently abandoned by his masters, ably performed the job assigned him. His decade-long disinformation campaign has reached precisely the target that it was designed for—the White House. 

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