Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syria suspected in Tripoli bombs

[Originally posted at NOW]

Indictments of five people, including a Syrian intelligence officer, on charges of carrying out last week’s deadly mosque blasts suggest senior Syrian regime involvement, say analysts.

Investigations into last Friday’s deadly twin bomb blasts in the northern city of Tripoli appeared to make significant progress Friday, with Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr filing charges against five men suspected of planning, preparing, and placing the car bombs outside the crowded mosques. The identities of the suspects, who include a Syrian intelligence officer, point to high-level involvement of the Bashar al-Assad regime, according to analysts NOW spoke with, although a laywer for one of the accused insists the charges are false and politically-motivated.

The two key Lebanese indictees, Sheikhs Hashem Menqara and Ahmad al-Gharib, are respectively the leader and a member of a splinter faction of the Islamic Tawheed Movement, a small Sunni Islamist movement based in Tripoli known for its links to the Syrian regime, although it was once bitterly opposed to Damascus.

Formed in the early 1980s in alliance with Iran and what would become Hezbollah, the militia in fact fought the Syrian occupying forces until the latter’s bloody crackdown in Tripoli in 1985, at which point Menqara was jailed. By the time he was released, 14 years later, Hezbollah and Syria had overcome their onetime enmity, and Menqara “came out as an ally of the Syrian regime and worked alongside them,” according to Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a Tripoli-based member of the Muslim Scholars’ Committee. According to Rahim as well as a senior Tawheed source who asked not to be named, the movement today is divided, with one faction loyal to Menqara and another to Sheikh Bilal Shaaban, son of the founder, Sheikh Saeed Shaaban. The senior Tawheed source, who belonged to the latter faction, firmly denied to NOW that his movement was responsible for Friday’s bombs.

And Menqara’s lawyer, Ibrahim Ayyoubi, also told NOW his client was not guilty. “This case is politicized […] the evidence isn’t there. The sides that are accusing him are known. It’s impossible, completely, entirely, fully, for Sheikh Hashem to do this […] He can’t, as a matter of religion, do anything involving bloodshed.”

Nonetheless, if the accusations should prove true, the case would tally with a history of Syrian-ordered bombings in Lebanon already well-established, said Lebanese American University Professor Imad Salamey.

“Considering the infamous case of Samaha-Mamluk, this sounds like it fits the same pattern,” Salamey told NOW, referring to the 2012 indictment of former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha along with Syrian national security chief General Ali Mamluk on charges of planning a number of terror attacks in Lebanon, particularly in the north.

As for why Syria would order such a bloody attack, Salamey believes the rationale is bound up with the ongoing war in the country.

“The regime is trying to expand its crisis to make it region-wide, linking the fate of regional stability to its survival. This gives it negotiation leverage with the international community, both for itself and its allies in Lebanon.”

Speaking of whom, Salamey argues the attack need not have involved Hezbollah, being the kind of tactic on whose merits Damascus and Hezbollah’s patrons in Tehran would likely disagree at the present moment.

“I personally doubt that Hezbollah approved of this – not because they care much about the people who were in those mosques, but rather because it’s not in Hezbollah’s interests for the security situation in the country to get totally out of hand, and for them to be engulfed in a sectarian struggle without much purpose or benefit for them.”

“So I think there is a relative difference here between the Iranian position and that of Syria. While the Syrian regime is desperate to expand the regional instability […] for Iran, the situation in Lebanon is to its advantage. Hezbollah has the upper hand politically, militarily, and security-wise, and the outbreak of Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon would undermine this,” he told NOW.

Finally, despite Friday’s indictment of another Syrian regime official on charges of plotting attacks on Lebanon, Salamey foresaw no deterioration in Lebanese-Syrian diplomatic relations.

“The foreign policy position of Lebanon is officially tied to [that of] Syria. So Lebanon officially will just turn a blind eye to the situation, as they did with the Samaha-Mamluk issue.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

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