Kidnappings expose Lebanon weakness

Tit-for-tat abductions linked to violence in neighbouring Syria bring to fore government’s inability to restore order.

People carrying their belongings are seen through tyres set by relatives and residents of Lebanon''s northern border town of Abboudiyyeh
Rival clans and militias have set up checkpoints as the government is pressured to restore order [Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – The reprisal kidnappings of over 20 Syrians and a Turkish national in Lebanon by one of the country’s biggest clans have demonstrated the weakness of Lebanon’s government in the face of escalating tensions. 

The Meqdads, a clan claiming to consist of over 10,000 eligible voters, took matters into their own hands a few days ago after one of their family members, Hassan al Meqdad, was kidnapped by Syrian rebels, who displayed him, bruised and beaten on a video, claiming him to be a sniper for the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah.

Immediately dismissing any links to Hezbollah, the family vowed to respond to Hassan’s kidnapping with their own operation if he was not released immediately. True to their word, the clan’s self-declared “military wing” announced on Thursday the abduction of over 20 Syrians, allegedly members of the Free Syrian Army, as well as one Turkish national.

By Friday, they had released 21 Syrians who they said were not involved with the FSA, refusing to disclose how many they still held, but insisting those who remained were important members of the FSA.

“We don’t consider ourselves above the law, but when there is no state, like now, then we need to act to protect ourselves,” Maher al Meqdad told Al Jazeera, sitting outside the family home on a street which carries their name in the heart of Dahyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs.

“We waited for the government to do something and they didn’t. Therefore, we were forced to do something to bring back our son.”

“The Free Syrian Army kidnapped 11 Shia Lebanese four months ago, and until now, the government has done nothing to bring them back,” he said, referring to the case of 11 pilgrims who were kidnapped by an alleged affiliate of the FSA in Syria in May.

While several TV crews have since visited the pilgrims, even on one occasion bringing with them family members of the kidnapped, the Lebanese government has done little to secure their release, in what the Shia community interprets as a lack of official concern. 

“We don’t want this for our family, so we believe [the kidnappings] are the only way to bring back our son,” al Meqdad said. “Let me be clear; they kill Hassan, and we will kill the Turk, inshallah.”

Tit for tat

Within hours of Thursday’s kidnappings, Lebanon’s security situation quickly deteriorated.

Lebanese clan kidnaps civilians

Other groups took advantage of the situation and through ad-hoc “military wings”, began kidnapping Syrian workers, vandalising Syrian-owned properties, and attacking Syrians residing in Lebanon.

Ali, a Syrian worker who has been living and working in Beirut for the last 15 years, told Al Jazeera that he was attacked and threatened on Friday by a group of Lebanese while waiting for work.

“This is the first time the situation has become this scary. People are mad, so there is now an expectation of violence and repercussions,” he said. “We have nothing to do with the kidnappings in Syria. The ones who did the kidnapping are inside Syria, so go and take them from inside Syria.”

The abductions are not limited to Syrian nationals. One previously unknown group kidnapped Lebanese businessman Raja Zuheiri on Thursday, demanding a ransom of $1m. Another group kidnapped a Turkish national on the same day. 

To add fuel to the fire, an airstrike hit Aazaz in Syria, the area where the 11 kidnapped pilgrims were being held. Conflicting reports on casualties from the attack stoked the perception of chaos.

Internationally, members of the Meqdad clan held Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia responsible for the kidnapping of Hassan, causing all Gulf states and Turkey to call for the immediate evacuation of their nationals in Lebanon.

The tensions spread to the streets of Beirut as the families of the pilgrims as well as supporters of the Meqdads blocked roads, burnt tyres, and closed down the airport road, forcing a plane from France to be diverted (via Damascus) to Cyprus.

Local journalists were attacked by protesters as they attempted to cover the events. Assailants fired shots at one reporter while journalists covering protests near the Nasnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria were pelted with stones. 

Masked gunmen took the streets in Dahyeh, a predominately Shia suburb south of Beirut, while other groups of gunmen  set up checkpoints in the northern city of Tripoli.

By Friday evening, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, came out and gave a speech stating that recent events were out of “Hezbollah and Amal’s control”. 

‘State without a government’

Lebanese politicians opposed to the current government called for its resignation, calling it incapable of dealing with the deteriorating security situation, and blaming the clans as acting on Hezbollah’s behest.

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Boutros Harb, a politician with the pro-Syrian opposition Lebanese movement March 14, told Al Jazeera that as a result of recent developments, the current government needs to step down.

“This government is absent, as everyone has the freedom to act as he chooses and behave without order. This is putting the country in jeopardy,” he said.

“Those responsible are no longer at the level where they can control the situation, and these actions are the result of the Syrian government trying to destabilise Lebanon,” he said, adding that the opposition is considering calling for a no confidence vote. “We need to stop the outlaws….we have never reached this level of behaviour before.” 

The kidnappings are seen as the latest in a series of actions which demonstrate a pre-existing notion that the government is weak and attempting to rule through negotiations with groups involved in illegal activity rather than upholding the law.

While many residents of Dahyeh are sympathetic to the Meqdad’s situation, there is an underlying concern of how far the situation will escalate.

“The Shia are targets for the Syrian opposition and the government is not doing anything. If it was any other sect, the situation would be different,” Sleiman, a resident of Hay al Sellom, told Al Jazeera. “I would’ve done the same thing as the Meqdads if a member of my family was kidnapped.”

For Jamal, also a resident of Hay al Sellom, “this is just a small detail in the bigger picture. The longer we have a state without a government, the worse things will get”.

“Those Syrians who were kidnapped by the Meqdads have nothing to do with the situation, because they were not the ones who kidnapped Hassan el Meqdad,” he said. “Innocent Syrian workers should not be targeted.”

Maher el Meqdad, who recently called for an end to military operations, has one main concern: Bringing back his relative alive from Syria. Anything else that happens in the country is not his problem, he said.

“People have been saying that the chaos over the last couple of days is because of the ‘Meqdadi’ way, but these comments don’t bother me,” he shrugged. “We are not responsible for the actions of others, and we have control over our own people.” 

Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha

Source: Al Jazeera