Thursday, September 13, 2012

Safe and sound? What ending the Moqdad affair means for Lebanon and the region

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The images of freed Turkish abductee Aydin Tufan Tekin reuniting with his family on Turkish soil Wednesday morning offered a happy ending to a month-long drama that pitted the Lebanese state against an obscure tribal militia.

Along with 20 Syrian nationals, Tekin was kidnapped in mid-August by the so-called “military wing” of the Moqdads, a Shiite clan based in Beirut’s southern suburbs, also known as “Dahiyeh”. His release was secured on Tuesday night following a series of raids on Moqdad locations by the Lebanese army on Tuesday and Friday. Despite claims by the Moqdads on Tuesday that Tekin was in critical condition after being shot in the chest and shoulder, he appeared unharmed on Wednesday and indeed said he had heard no gunfire during Tuesday’s raid. The Syrian captives were also freed.

The apparent assertion of state authority over turf ordinarily considered a stronghold of Hezbollah raises the question of whether a fundamental shift in the country’s balance of powers is underway. Some Lebanese seem to think so – “Weather is changing on our Republic,” tweeted the Tajaddod Youth party account on Saturday. Others were more cynical. “Am I supposed to believe we suddenly have a state? Give me a break,” wrote the author of the Lebanon Spring blog.

The latter sentiment was echoed by the activist and Dahiyeh resident Lokman Slim, who told NOW Lebanon that, “As an eyewitness from Haret Hreik, when the army arrived with their tanks and Humvees it was for me all a kind of show. They couldn’t have done this without a certain understanding with Hezbollah. In general, all this enthusiasm shown by the army, whether in the Dahiyeh or in Naame where they arrested some people for inciting sectarian tension, is part of a big staging that does not guarantee the security of the country.”

On the other hand, retired Lebanese Army General Elias Hanna commended the army’s action, arguing that it was in the interests of both the state and Hezbollah to see the Moqdad issue resolved. “There are three factions within the Shiites: Hezbollah, Amal and the tribes,” he told NOW. “These tribes are usually out of Hezbollah’s control, and we have witnessed a lot of skirmishes between these factions in the past. Now what happened with the Moqdads was hurting Lebanon, hurting Hezbollah and hurting Amal. Moreover, they are like competitors, so I think that the army took a prior ‘OK’ from Hezbollah as well as maybe practical intelligence about these people’s whereabouts.”

Asked about other ostensible assertions of state authority, such as the arrest of former minister and close Syria ally Michel Samaha, as well as three Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) members, Hanna again said that acute disorder was in no one’s interest. “All the factions in Lebanon are trying to impose a certain level of stability. You can allow a certain degree of instability but only to the point where it doesn’t threaten or endanger the situation. What happened with Samaha was irrefutable. Nobody can say that ‘We are with Samaha.’ Everybody is embarrassed, including pro-Syrian elements. After all, he confessed what he did! So this explains the aggressiveness of the president concerning the sovereignty of Lebanon and so on,” referring to President Sleiman’s unprecedented stances vis-à-vis the Moqdads and on other issues.

Slim, however, is again unconvinced. “These are all part of the same logic. The Moqdad situation, the Makdissi Street situation [with the SSNP members], and the robbing of Samaha by his allies all belong in the same category. Nobody is stupid enough to believe the army can storm the Dahiyeh but cannot do the same in other regions of Lebanon. For the army to prove its seriousness, it has to be able to do the same everywhere, otherwise it is just either a passive observer or an accomplice.”

Lebanese considerations aside, at the international level, Tekin’s ordeal may have consequences for Turkey’s policy on Syria. According to Oytun Orhan, Middle East expert at the Ankara-based ORSAM think tank, the kidnapping led to widespread domestic condemnation of the Turkish government’s support for the Syrian opposition. “There was a lot of criticism within Turkish society because if you deal with the Syrian issue in this way – if you interfere in Syrian affairs, and arm and give safe haven to the Free Syrian Army in Hatay – then you will have these kind of negative implications in the region. Many Turks saw Tekin’s kidnapping as a natural result of our Syria policy,” he told NOW.

Orhan added that Lebanese-Turkish relations were never threatened by the Moqdad affair. “Turkey knew that this was something outside the control of the Lebanese government. Nobody considered this a factor which could deteriorate Turkish-Lebanese relations.”

“But, of course, solving the issue was beneficial for those.”

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