By Riad Kahwaji
The shocking apprehension of Syria’s strong man in Lebanon former Lebanese Minister of Information Michel Semaha after being caught red-handed plotting to carry out a series of bomb attacks with the objective of instigating sectarian and religious tension in the country has revealed two things about the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.
First, the Syrian regime is adamant to spark sectarian wars to implicate Al-Qaeda and make the world believe that if the regime is toppled, Islamic extremists will rule and target the minority Christian and Alawite communities in The Levant.
Second, the weakened Syrian regime is losing allies quickly, which has prompted it to seek the assistance of a politician to carry out a security operation usually assigned to its allied militias in Lebanon.
Semaha, a Christian Catholic who acted as communications advisor to Bashar Assad over the past couple of years, was reportedly arrested after a sting operation by the intelligence branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) which used a mini-spy camera on a pen to film him hand over 24 explosive devices to a double agent to be used to assassinate political figures and blow up religious gatherings and churches in northern Lebanon to stir up tension between Muslim Sunni and Alawite communities and between Muslim Sunni and Christian communities in the country. According to Lebanese security sources familiar with the investigations, Semaha admitted that he received the explosive devices from the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk at the directions of Bashar Assad personally. Semaha and Mamlouk were formally charged by the Lebanese public prosecutor and accused of plotting to carry out terrorist acts to undermine civil peace and stability in the country.
Syria’s allies in Lebanon, better-known as the March 8 Forces, have remained largely silent after initial criticism of the arrest. But after leaking to the media the strong incriminating evidence against Semaha, critics went silent despite frantic calls reportedly made by Assad personally to some Lebanese officials seeking Semaha’s release. However, both Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Premier Najib Mikati have commended the ISF for their successful operation that saved Lebanon from “eminent danger.” Both have asserted that the full extent of the law will be implemented in this case without any political pressure. The question raised by Lebanese media and observers is what will the largely perceived pro-Syrian Lebanese government do about this odd situation? Will it be able to condemn the Syrian regime and take some action, such as recalling the Ambassador or severe diplomatic relations? The Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour has stated that some form of action will be decided once the court rules in the case. Syria is yet to comment on the incident.
Several Lebanese security and political sources said that the Syrian regime has been pressing some of its allies in Lebanon, especially ones that have armed groups like Hizbullah, to carry out acts that could heighten sectarian and religious tension in the country in order to divert attention from the armed public rebellion sweeping Syria and send a message to the international community that without the regime, turmoil will spread throughout the Levant and Al-Qaeda will rule. Semaha – like other pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians – gave several press interviews over the past few months in which he warned that Lebanon was under the threat of attacks by Al-Qaeda as a result of spread of Islamist forces in Syria. “If the mission asked of Semaha had succeeded it would have provided a strong case to the Syrian regime and its supporters that Al-Qaeda was the one behind the problems in Lebanon and Syria,” said a Lebanese security official who asked not to be named.
Using politicians like Semaha to carry out such a devious security operation surprised several Lebanese officials and security analysts. The main conclusion that could be drawn from this affair is that the Syrian regime was running out of trusted agents and reliable allies in Lebanon willing to be involved in such a dangerous task that could have caused the death of hundreds of people and reignited the Lebanese civil war. “Most Lebanese officials, including those allied with the Syrian regime, do not want to sink with Assad by starting a civil war in their own country,” the official added. A Lebanese politician very close to Syria has described using Semaha for this operation as another sign for dwindling power of Assad and that “his regime has approached the point of desperation, and could be close to its imminent collapse.” However, the politician added, “being desperate would make the Syrian regime very dangerous and unpredictable.”
The unprecedented move by the Lebanese judicial body in indicting Mamlouk could signal a turning point in the relations between the Lebanese state and the Syrian regime. Even though it was widely believed that Syria was responsible for many of the killings and troubles that swept through Lebanon over the past years, however it was the first time ever the regime has been caught in the act with strong evidence that would make it hard for the Lebanese government not to react. Anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition parties have demanded recalling the ambassador from Damascus and for severing of relations with the Syrian regime. However, it is not expected to see Beirut take any action before the court gives its final verdict in the Semaha case. Nevertheless, until the court rules or the Syrian regime collapses, relations between the two countries will never be the same and will likely be on the decline.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA