Sunday, February 18, 2018

Syrian civil war shakes Damascus-Beirut ties

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian civil war has spilled into Lebanon, bringing with it sectarian street clashes, mob violence and general government paralysis.

But the dramatic arrest this month of a former Lebanese government minister and prominent supporter of Syria's embattled president suggested the conflict may be causing Lebanon to slip further away from Damascus' long domination.

The bloodshed in Syria has drawn Lebanon deeper into the unrest — a troubling sign for a country that has gone through its own 15-year civil war and has an explosive sectarian mix as well as deep divisions between pro- and anti-Syrian factions, many of which are armed. The chaos could give Sunni Muslim fighters in northern Lebanon more leeway to establish supply lines to rebels inside Syria in their battle to oust President Bashar Assad.

Tensions and intermittent fighting in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli continued Wednesday after two days of clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups that killed at least six people and wounded more than 70.

Syria has long had powerful allies here, including the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group that now dominates the government. For much of the past 30 years, Lebanese have lived under Syrian military and political domination.

That grip began to slip in 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. Widely accused of involvement— something it has always denied — Syria was forced to withdraw its troops. But the killings of anti-Syrian figures continued and opponents of Assad's regime say he has maintained his influence through allies who now control the government.

This made the Aug. 9 arrest of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, one of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon who has long acted as an unofficial media adviser to Assad, all the more shocking.

Within hours, leaks began emerging that Samaha had confessed to having personally transported explosives in his car from Syria to Lebanon to kill Lebanese personalities at the behest of Syria.

Two days later, a military court indicted Samaha, accusing him of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks. Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, who was appointed last month by Assad to head Syria's National Security Bureau, was indicted in absentia on charges he furnished the explosives to Samaha.

The case stunned many in Lebanon, where political assassinations have occurred with impunity for decades. While Syria has been blamed for many of the killings, no one has been held accountable.

"I think the policy (in Lebanon) has been shifting away from alliance with Syria," said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London. "The Syrian regime has been under intense pressure, so its allies in Lebanon have recalibrated."

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