Syria’s Civil War is leaking out of its borders into Lebanon. The two countries share a porous border and very close communal ties. Cross-border ties between Lebanese and Syrians have deep roots, and with the Syrian revolution unfolding, solidarity took on a political and paramilitary character.
The Sunni-Shiite faultline in Lebanon is being projected onto the Syrian civil war. As tensions between Sunnis and Shiites rise in Syria, so too do they mount in Lebanon.
Sunni militants in Lebanon view their jihad against the Shiite movement as a mirror image of the Syrian rebels’ fight against the Alawite-dominated regime of Assad. They see the Lebanon’s Shiite movement of Hezbullah and the Assad regime as both enemies of the Sunnis.
The Assad regime has a history of lashing out when it feels under siege, coupled with a tradition of violent interference in Lebanese affairs to destabilise its neighbor.
Border areas have been caught in the Syrian revolution, with weapons smuggling, refugee flows and attacks against Lebanese villages along the frontier coming from Sunnis or Shiites, depending on the villagers’ allegiances.
Source: UN agency report, "Revised Syria Regional Response Plan"
The stream of refugees (most of them living with Lebanese host families or finding sanctuary in public spaces and mosallahs) has had political and military consequences as Lebanese Sunnis, bearing witness to the increasing brutality of the Assad regime, step up their involvement.
In the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, which began in March 2011, Sunni support for the Syrian opposition only consisted of fiery speeches and sermons, of public demonstrations against the Assad regime, and of modest smuggling of light weapons. But as the conflict hardened, logistical assistance also was extended to Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon. Over time, the influx of refugees and dissidents into north Lebanon changed the nature of the border areas’ involvement.
Source: UN agency report, "Revised Syria Regional Response Plan"
Clashes among Sunnis and Shiites have been on the rise in Lebanon, with the risk of cascading violence turning into a Lebanese-on-Lebanese struggle by the knock-on effects of sectarian conflict. Often in Lebanon, communal belongings coincide with religious ones. When a Sunnni or a Shiite is killed or kidnapped, the whole community won’t rest until it takes revenge. Mutual retaliation between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites could easily become a vicious and unending circle of violence.
Heightened insecurity is leading many armed groups to take matters into their own hands, with tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings, and with the erection of roadblocks that impede critical transportation routes.
Each Lebanon’s faction -- either Sunni or Shiite -- wagers on success by one Syrian side or the other, waiting to translate the ensuing regional balance of power into a domestic one.
The Shiite movement Hezbollah can not contemplate a future with a Sunni-dominated Syrian regime. The Assad regime constitutes Hezbollah’s immediate strategic depth as well as the bridge connecting it to Iran. The relationship between the two allies became organic and even personal, between Bashar Assad and Hassan Nasrallah.
After Syria’s 2005 military withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah’s political independence rose. An asymmetrical relationship grew into a strategic partnership.
On a strategic level, Hezbollah has been engaged in a common struggle against the March 14 Alliance, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and France – which they believe are intent on defeating the Assad regime and Iran.
Hezbollah doubted that the Arab uprisings -- from Egypt to Barhain -- would spread in Syria because the Assad regime was considered to be in tune with Arab sentiment about the U.S., Israel and the Palestinians.
"I personally believe that Syrian President Assad believes and is serious and determined about reform…. I know that he is ready to undertake very serious reforms but calmly, with care and responsibility. This factor influences our stance …. In Bahrain the regime was closed. Mubarak was closed. Qadhafi was closed. Zein Al Abideen Bin Ali was closed. In Syria the regime is not closed. On the contrary, he is saying: I am ready and I believe in reforms and I am serious and I want to carry them out …. The fall of the regime is an Israeli-US interest, aiming at getting Syria to sign any peace deal with Israel. … As a resistance movement against Israel, we are required to adopt a responsible stance that is committed to the security and stability of Syria as a government and people."
-- Sayyed Nasrallah, May 25th, 2011
Hezbollah also views any threat to the Assad regime as a threat directed at its principal ally, Iran. The Assad regime has been Iran’s closest strategic partner for the past three decades, its bridgehead to the Levant, and a country without which Tehran’s ability to supply Hezbollah would be severely diminished.
In June 2006, Iranian defence minister Najjar stated that Iran "considers Syria's security its own security, and we consider our defense capabilities to be those of Syria."
If Hezbollah has tied its fate to the Assad regime, it also has to safeguard its posture in Lebanon -- not only at present, but also in anticipation of a regime change in Damascus. That is why it has acquiesced in policies that went against the interests of the Assad regime, while providing that same regime with practical support on the ground, such as lending snipers to Assad forces and killing Syrian protesters. United-States officials assert that Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran are in close military cooperation, even forming an elite militia.
Conversely, the Sunni-dominated Future Movement (Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal) of Lebanon and its Sunni partners see no alternative to the Assad regime’s demise, however long it will take and no matter the costs.
The Future Movement is now led by Saudi-Lebanese Saad-eddine Rafiq Al-Hariri
Lebanese Sunnis view the Syrian civil war as an opportunity to seek revenge against the Assad regime, as well as a chance to challenge Hezbollah’s hegemony in Lebanon.
Hezbollah continues to enjoy a lopsided military advantage in Lebanon over Sunnis, forcing them to think twice before challenging it. But confrontation would not serve the Shiite organisation, for it would attract further domestic and regional condemnation and isolation.
Sunnis are feeling gradually more emboldened, eager for revenge, while Shiites are feeling more and more exposed, fearful of their growing regional isolation.
"The emergence of Sunni power will change the balance of power in Lebanon"
-- Paul Salem (the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon)
The Syrian uprising is helping Sunni jihadists in both Lebanon and Syria bolster their standing and mutual ties that had been debilitated in the 1980s. Solidarity with their embattled brethren has led Sunnis to turn regions of Lebanon into sanctuaries and transit points for the supply of weapons to Syrian rebel forces and for staging ground for attacks by those Syrian rebels. This has been the case in northern Lebanon, notably the border regions of Tripoli and Akkar.
Arms smuggling into Syria began as a commercial affair, but has expanded with the Future Movement using Turkey as the hub for supporting armed opposition groups. The price of weapons rose as a result of mounting demand.
Source: The Daily Star
The price of weapons rose also as pro-Assad Lebanese authorities intercepted several large arms shipments.
In April 2012, Lebanese authorities intercepted a cargo ship, the Sierra-Leone-registered Lutfallah II (لطف الله ٢), in Lebanese waters. The ship was carrying three containers of heavy and light weapons destined for the rebels in Syria, according to BBC, 29 April 2012.
After the entry of the ship Lutfallah II into Lebanese waters and its discovery on April 28, two other warehouses full of imported weapons ("heavy machine guns, shells, rockets, rocket launchers and other explosives") for the Syrian opposition were uncovered on the coast of Tripoli.
The ship is reported to have begun its voyage from Libya, stopped off in Alexandria in Egypt, and finally headed for the port of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, before it was intercepted.
Many ships have been reported leaving the Misurata port in Libya and heading towards Tripoli in Lebanon, using Egyptian ports for “transit.”
Russia Today reports Franklin Lamb saying "There is an eyewitness, Hassan Diab, who saw the ship Lutfallah II, carrying a Sierra Leone flag, being loaded in Benghazi, Libya. We know that Qatar and Saudi Arabia control five warehouses in the area of Benghazi. So the great suspicion is that the intercepted arms are from those left over from the Libya campaign."
"The boat went from Tripoli to Turkey, back down to Egypt and then to Libya, then to Tripoli, Lebanon. It was seized on the way there," Mr. Lamb said.
The news service Akhbar wrote that "informed Egyptian sources" reported that an Egyptian port police saw the Lutfallah II transiting through Alexandria.
The owner of the ship is named Mohammed Khafaji (محمد خفاجي), a resident of Damietta, Egypt, who works for KHAFAJI MARITIME Co., "one of the leading shipping companies in Middle East", privately established in 1999, which provides "world-wide shipping, Managing, and Chartering services."
Ten years ago, Mohammed Khafaji bought the German-built Lutfallah II, whose load is 3,900 tons, from Denmark. He then bought another five ships five years ago. He is suspected of human trafficking, of transporting his human cargo from Egypt to Greece, from where the trafficked persons would make their way into Europe through networks of commercial mafias.
As for Khafaji’s involvement in using his ship for arms smuggling, sources indicated to the Ahbar News Service that a voyage from the port of Alexandria to Tripoli normally costs around US$20,000.
The ship was only carrying three containers and the regular price per container is between US$1,500 and US$2,000. This means that the total market price he would have received for the trip to Tripoli would amount to no more than US$6,000.
Information about the ship was apparently obtained by an official Lebanese security agency while the weapons were being packed in Libya.
The manifest says that each of the three containers on board were carrying 31 tons, which is beyond the capacity of the containers.
Even more peculiar is that the ship’s number does not appear in the insurance documents, contrary to maritime transport regulations.
The owner of the shipping company, Motaweh Omar Rima, was in Saudi Arabia when he was contacted by a group of Syrian rebels asking him to support the “Syrian revolution.”
It came through a Lebanese person who said that the plan was to unload the shipment and transport it to pre-arranged locations in Akkar, from which it will be taken to Syria.
Sunni Lebanese jihadists coordinated with Syrian fighters to carry not only weapons, but also injured fighters into Lebanon in order to provide them with medical treatment. They established mobile clinics, offering treatment to the injured and arranging special transportation of the severely wounded to hospitals.
The black flag of Sunni islam, "There is no god but allah, muhammad is allah's messenger"
The Sunnis in the north of Lebanon harbour deep resentment towards the conduct of the Assad regime over the past decades and feel solidarity with their Syrian brethren. This anger and hostility has a longstanding history. In the early 1980s, the violent crackdown of the Assad regime against the Muslim Brotherhood pushed many Syrian Sunnis into northern Lebanon, where they were received and sheltered.
Between 1982 and 1985, Tripoli witnessed intense fighting pitting Sunni jihadi groups such as Al-Tawhid against the Syrian Army before the latter assumed control of the city.
During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Syrian security services and their Lebanese allies – including many Alawites – detained, tortured, killed and otherwise persecuted a lot of Lebanese Sunni jihadists.
In the course of the Assad regime’ post-war tutelage of Lebanon (1990-2005), Hezbollah’s ongoing empowerment coupled with the sidelining of Rafic Hariri, a Sunni leader, solidified the Sunnis' belief in their marginalisation.
Former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Baha El Deen Al-Hariri led the Future Movement. The billionaire tycoon reclaimed Beirut's architectural heritage from the shattered cityscape of a civil war and made it his mission to restore Lebanon's mercantile leadership.
Al-Hariri was assassinated in February 2005.
"Shortly after the blast, the Director of Al-Jazeera TV in Beirut received a telephone call from a man who stated that the Nasra and Jihad Group in Greater Syria claimed responsibility for the assassination of Mr. Hariri." (Source)
A Lebanese police officer and U.N. investigators unearthed extensive circumstantial evidence implicating Hezbollah, according to an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission's report, based on examination of Lebanese phone records, suggested Hezbollah officials communicated with the owners of cell phones used to coordinate the detonation that killed Hariri and 22 others as they traveled through Beirut in an armed convoy (according to Lebanese and U.N. phone analysis obtained by CBC and shared with The Washington Post).
Nasrallah claimed Israel killed Hariri. But in October 2005, U.N. prosecutor Detlev Mehlis issued a report saying that al-Hariri's assassination "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security forces."
The CBC's reporting also uncovered an internal U.N. document indicating Wissam al-Hassan was considered as a potential suspect.
Al-Hassan oversaw security for Hariri at the time of the assassination but claimed he had taken the day off to take an examination at a university...
Al-Hassan was the head of the Information Unit of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (I.S.F.) at the time.
An internal U.N. memo dated March 10, 2008, said Hassan's "alibi is weak and inconsistent" and recommended that he be "investigated quietly."
Eventually, al-Hassan's intelligence unit, relying on telecommunications analysis, uncovered the network that monitored Rafik Hariri just before his death. The Information Unit's findings were incorporated into the U.N. investigation and lead to the indictment of four individuals connected with Hezbollah.
This episode added to a sense of vulnerability among Lebanese Sunnis.
Meanwhile, the socio-economic decline of the northern Lebanon -- neglected by Beirut and largely cut off from its Syrian hinterland given bitter relations with Damascus -- exacerbated Sunni feelings of abandonment.
But now -- as Sunni jihadists in northern Lebanon shelter and protect Syrians who crossed the border, -- they reactivate ties that had been debilitated in the 1980s, thereby breaking with their sense of isolation and reconnecting with their communal, Sunni identity. Sunni jihadists in the north of Lebanon champion the Syrian uprising as their own cause, considering themselves the pioneers of resistance against the Assad regime.
The financial aid destined to the Syrian revolution contributes to a broader Sunni mobilisation, with jihadist Sunni Lebanese joining Syrian rebels in establishing networks of wealthy donors. An active fundraising network progressively emerged, with money coming chiefly from Gulf Arab states and individuals as well as from wealthy Syrian expatriates and Islamic charitable organisations. Lebanese militants and NGOs play an intermediary role between donors and recipients, among them combatants. Ever since Saudi Arabia and Qatar decided to back the Free Syrian Army, Sunni jihadists have been receiving more funds for Syrian fighters.
Sunni jihadists in Lebanon are joining a broader, region-wide sentiment of Sunni rebirth in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere. Buoyed by both the Syrian revolution and these regional trends, Lebanon’s Sunnis have not hesitated to confront their own authorities.
When, on 14 May 2012, members of Directorate General of the General Security – a Lebanese intelligence agency whose head has close ties to Hezbollah – arrested Lebanese Sunni Shadi Mawlawi, local jihadists rose up in various Tripoli neighbourhoods.
Likewise, the 20 May 2012 killing at an army checkpoint in Akkar of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, a Sunni cleric – another backer of the Syrian uprising – prompted a show of Sunni force.
Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed
Sunni gunmen attending the funeral of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed. (Source)
In the wake of these incidents, Sunni armed groups called for the Lebanese Army’s withdrawal from the whole Akkar District. Several Sunni leaders went as far as to encourage Sunni soldiers to defect from the Lebanese armed forces, which is viewed as sympathetic to Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
And as news of Wissam al-Hassan’s assassination spread on 19 October, armed groups and masked men carrying the black flag of Sunni islam took to the streets of Tripoli, where gunmen forced the closure of shops, Akkar and other areas, including Beirut.
Major General Wissam Adnan al-Hassan was seen as a leading Sunni figure in Lebanon.
On October 19, a car exploded in the heart of Beirut’s Christian district. It destroyed cars, shattered shop windows, caused significant damage to surrounding buildings, killed Wissam al-Hassan and two others, and wounded over a hundred.
In addition to his leading role in the Lebanese intelligence apparatus, al-Hassan was close to Lebanon’s anti-Assad March 14 Alliance and had strong ties with the family of Rafik Hariri. After all, Saad Hariri kept him within his inner circle despite the continued whispering about his whereabouts during the 2005 assassination of his father, and despite the fact that he was deeply distrusted by many of Saad Hariri’s allies, not only for his shadowy dealings in the U.N. investigation, but also for his role in the government’s crackdown on Fatah al-Islam. Leaked cables revealed that al-Hassan played the role of intermediary between Saad Hariri and Hezbollah, brokering a deal that allowed the Shiite movement to maintain its fiber-optics network in exchange for political concessions. Under Hassan’s leadership, the I.S.F. also helped roll up a vast network of Israeli spies in Lebanon, cooperating with Hezbollah to uncover a string of informants. And in 2010, Hassan was invited to Damascus as part of a campaign by the Syrian and Saudi governments to improve relations between the Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon. Despite this ambiguous role of middleman between Sunnis and Shiites, Saad Hariri elevated al-Hassan to higher positions of power.
The assassination of al-Hassan weakens the Lebanese security services at a critical time.
[T]he unit that al-Hassan headed had been particularly effective in the last few months, arresting former information minister Michel Samaha -- one of Assad’s closest Lebanese associates -- who was caught red-handed attempting to smuggle explosives from Syria into Lebanon. The unit was also instrumental in the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri as well as cases exposing Israeli spy networks in Lebanon.
-- Paul Salem, "Lebanon’s Fragile Peace Will Hold Despite Blow"
Before his death, in August, the I.S.F. moved to arrest Michel Samaha. Hassan accused Samaha of smuggling explosives into Lebanon in order to carry out assassinations and drag the country into sectarian strife.
There was something surreal about the Samaha arrest: A high-profile political figure had been caught by a Lebanese police unit with evidence so compelling — reportedly even extensive video and audio footage and witness testimony — that none of Samaha’s pro-Syrian allies came to his defense. The highly public nature of the scandal and the brazen use of the media to air details of the alleged plot seemed to suggest defiance on Hassan’s part in the face of a weakened Syrian regime.
Hariri said shortly after the explosion that killed Hassan, “We have always thought Bashar al-Assad has killed Rafik Hariri, and today he has also killed Wissam al-Hassan.”
Hariri may be right, but the question of who killed Hassan seems less important than why he was killed at all, and why now.
The assassination of al-Hassan inflamed the Sunnis of the March 14 Alliance. It was immediately followed by a great outpouring of grief and anger. Protesters and mourners condemned the bombing and called on the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to step down. There was considerable unrest throughout Lebanon for a few days.
The current goal of Lebanese Sunni jihadists is to turn the north of Lebanon into a de facto Sunni enclave, a Sunni bastion where their domination would go unchecked and where they would feel free to develop military capabilities in the service of an incipient Sunni Caliphate.
Efforts to boost their military capacity are intended to produce parity with Hezbollah so as to deter any Shiite foray in the north. Sunni jihadists are now challenging the Lebanese Army’s position in the north in order to curtail its ability to constrain them and to curb efforts aimed at boosting the Syrian revolution. They want the Army to turn a blind eye on the arms and fighters that are being smuggled into Syria as well as on Syrian and Lebanese jihadists’ activities.