In Beirut last week, former Lebanese MP and cabinet member Michel Samaha was arrested and later confessed to “planning terrorist attacks in Lebanon at Syrian orders.” A longtime ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Samaha was apparently acting under the direction of Damascus to stir sectarian strife in Lebanon between Sunnis and Alawites, as well as between Sunnis and Christians.
A recent campaign of kidnappings between the borders of the two countries, featuring Lebanese Shiite clans and the Sunni-majority Free Syrian Army, is yet more evidence that the main sectarian divide in the region is between Sunnis and Shiites, but it seems that Samaha’s latest campaign was directed primarily against Christians. When he was caught he was reportedly preparing a bombing attack in north Lebanon to coincide with a visit by the Maronite patriarch Beshara al-Rahi. It seems that the purpose of the operation was to cast blame on the Sunni community for the assassination of Lebanon’s most important Christian religious and political, figure, and lend more evidence to the Syrian regime’s claim that once Assad falls. Sunni Islamists in both Syria and Lebanon will slaughter not just Alawites, but Christians, too.
The irony is that the patriarch himself has previously lent support to Assad’s sectarian public diplomacy. “If the regime changes in Syria, and the Sunnis take over, they will form an alliance with the Sunnis in Lebanon,” Rahi said in the fall, arguing that Christians in both countries would pay the price. Little could Rahi have imagined that the most immediate threat to his own life was not a Sunni Islamist empowered by Assad’s fall, but another Christian like Samaha, working under Assad’s orders.
Samaha’s arrest should put paid to the idea, professed not just in pro-Assad Middle East circles but also in various Western ones, that only Assad can protect the Christians. After a Syrian-sponsored campaign of assassinations of Lebanese Christian political figures and journalists starting in 2005 and up to the thwarted operation against Rahi, evidence points rather to the fact that Assad sees Christians the way he sees Sunnis, Israelis, Iraqis, Americans, and anyone else whose death might serve his purpose, as sheep for the slaughter.
The fact that Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces were able to move freely against Samaha suggests that the 16-month uprising in Syria has steadily eroded Assad’s influence in Lebanon. Nonetheless, the Damascus regime, and perhaps Assad himself, is “exerting pressure” on the Lebanese judiciary and President Michel Suleiman to release Samaha. However, with the Syrian regime wholly occupied in its fight for survival, it’s unclear how many levers Assad has left in Lebanon, aside from Hezbollah. The Shiite militia has made its anger over the detention known—“We will not remain silent,” says Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad—other Samaha supporters are up in arms, and his lawyers expect him to be released, but so far he’s still being held in jail. If the Lebanese government is able to make the charges against Samaha stick, it will mean that Syria’s trusted allies on Lebanon, as NOW Lebanon’s Hanin Ghaddar writes, are not “protected anymore. If Samaha was left to drown, then anyone, no matter how close they are to Assad, could face the same destiny.”
The story of Samaha’s arrest also has a ripple effect, extending far outside of the Levant, reaching finally Washington, where it touches on the Obama administration’s policy regarding not just Syria but also the entire Middle East. For several months now, the White House has warned that the uprising against Assad has empowered al Qaeda affiliates in the Levant. The Samaha story suggests that the White House’s assessment is flawed.