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.
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.
The American intelligence community knows very well that the Assad regime consorted with Sunni terrorist groups, including al Qaeda affiliates. Damascus International Airport served as a transit hub for foreign fighters making their way across the border to Iraq to fight American troops. It hardly comes as any surprise, then, that some Sunni fighters, including al Qaeda, have turned against the regime and are now making war against it. But given Samaha’s arrest, with what confidence can the White House claim that all the bombings in Syria attributed to al Qaeda are the work of jihadists, rather than the regime itself, furthering Samaha’s narrative?
The Obama administration fears that supporting the Free Syrian Army might inadvertently assist al Qaeda, which the administration’s actions suggest is the major strategic issue in the Middle East. After all, the Obama campaign boasts that killing Osama bin Laden is the president’s major foreign policy achievement. Toppling Bashar, however, and thereby weakening Iran and cutting off Hezbollah’s supply lines, is not that important.