Syria’s War Takes Hold of Lebanon Through Bombings and Kidnappings

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Hussein Malla / AP

A Hizballah civil defense worker walks past a burning car in the southern suburb of Beirut, on Aug. 15, 2013.

Updated August 16, 04:30 a.m. EST

The frequently voiced fear that the Syrian crisis could engulf the region is unlikely to be realized in one earth-shattering event. Instead it will leak across borders, a contact corrosion that, once established, will likely prove impossible to eradicate. In neighboring Lebanon, it has already materialized in the form of car bombs. On Thursday evening an explosion in the Shi‘ite-dominated suburbs south of Beirut killed 22 and wounded scores. It was the second such attack following a similar bombing in July, both aimed at the powerful Shi‘ite organization Hizballah, which has actively backed the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But the Syrian conflict has also led in Lebanon to a spate of politically motivated kidnappings that have exposed the fragility and incompetence of the state security apparatus. The most recent kidnapping, in which two Turkish Airlines pilots were taken at gunpoint from a shuttle bus just one kilometer from the airport — within sight of an army checkpoint — is the first known case of an international abduction in Beirut since the civil war that ended nearly a quarter-century ago. A terrorism tactic to achieve political gains, kidnappings were once a hallmark of that war, and their resumption now casts a shadow over Lebanon’s ability to shield itself from Syrian fallout. The kidnapping threatens Lebanese-Turkish relations and could have a far-reaching impact, from a crumbling economy to a reduction in the national power supply. Offshore electricity barges leased from Turkey provide 20% of Lebanon’s needs. Tourism, worth $8 billion in 2010, only brought in $4 billion last year because of regional insecurity. The Turkish kidnapping, says caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, is likely to be the “last nail in the coffin” for a sector that provides one-fifth of Lebanon’s GDP.

The attack itself was a straightforward affair. At 3 a.m., Gunmen traveling in two vehicles stopped a regularly scheduled microbus shuttling Turkish Airlines personnel from the airport to a downtown hotel. They stormed the vehicle, pulled out pilots Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, then melted into the thick urban settlements that surround the airport without attracting attention from the nearby military checkpoint. There were six to eight assailants, according to Lebanese investigators.

(PHOTOS: Car-Bomb Blast in Beirut Kills at Least 14, Injures Dozens)

Within hours, a hitherto unknown group calling itself the Brigade of the Pilgrims to Imam Ali al Reda Shrine took responsibility. Then things took a surreal turn. The kidnappers declared that the pilots would be released in exchange for nine Lebanese Shi‘ite pilgrims who had been kidnapped by rebels in Syria more than a year ago. The kidnappers did not blame Turkey for the abductions, but they claimed that as backers of the Syrian opposition, Turkey would have leverage over the Lebanese pilgrim’s abductors.

Political kidnappings are considered acts of terrorism because of the extreme stress and pain they place on the friends and families of the victims. Yet the families of the Lebanese pilgrims showed little sympathy for the Turkish pilots’ loved ones. Instead they crowed in triumph, expressing hope that the tit-for-tat kidnappings might bring their own suffering to an end. “Whoever did it, we support him because this drama must finish,” Daniel Sheib, a brother of one of the abducted pilgrims, tells TIME. The families officially deny any association with the pilots’ kidnappers, a stance belied by their public appearances and threatening rhetoric. On Monday, Hayat Awali, a spokesperson for the families, vowed further abductions. “Any Turkish citizen in the southern suburbs and the city of Beirut is a target for [kidnapping] by the families of the Lebanese hostages,” she told reporters at an emotional press conference. “Any Turkish citizen is a legitimate target for us because we believe that Turkey stands behind the kidnapping,” adds Sheib.

Mohammad Saleh, the son of one of the Lebanese hostages, was detained for investigation because of the suspiciously large number of congratulatory texts he received immediately following the pilots’ abduction. The families threatened to block the main airport road in protest. Rafic Hariri International is the only functioning airport in Lebanon, and blockages are a common form of protest. But so far the families have not acted on the threat. Another family member admitted to the Daily Star newspaper that they had been told a blockage “amounts to crossing a red line,” but it still could happen, says Sheib. “Maybe we will block the airport, maybe something else. We will have to discuss this issue before we take any further action.”

So far the investigation has turned up little, and the suspected mastermind is still at large. On Tuesday, Ankara warned Lebanon that the kidnapping could hamper ties between the two countries. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reminded Lebanon that Turkey had nothing to do with the pilgrims’ kidnapping, pointing out that Syrians committed it on Syrian soil. According to Turkish news agencies, he expressed his “deep concern over the abduction and the negative repercussions it may have on bilateral relations between the two countries,” to Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, and his ministry urged citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Lebanon. On Wednesday, caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel assured a visiting Turkish delegation that the case was a high priority. “We are seriously following up on the issue at the security, judicial and political levels in order to secure their release and their safe return to their families,” he said, according to a statement from his office.

When the Lebanese pilgrims were first taken in May 2012, Turkey took the lead on negotiating for their release. The pilgrims had been abducted by a rebel brigade called the North Storm, who accused them without proof of being spies for Iran or Hizballah, which are both aligned with the Syrian regime. The North Storm brigade was part of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Back then Turkey, as the sole northern conduit for arming, funding and training the FSA, thought, wrongly, that it might have some leverage. These days, the rebel groups have become even more factionalized, and Turkey is losing whatever influence it once had. There has been no news of the pilgrims for more than a year, but in the Lebanese view, Turkey is still deeply linked with their fate.

Timur Goksel, a longtime Lebanon resident from Turkey who now edits the Turkish section of the Middle East news-monitoring site al-Monitor, says he can’t really blame the families for resorting to kidnapping to get back their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers. “Unfortunately, that is how things are done in Lebanon,” he says. “When the state is so powerless, people have to go around the state to achieve results. Kidnapping is a tried and true method.”

The only difference this time, Goksel says, is that the kidnapping involved foreigners. He would like to see both the pilots and the pilgrims released but worries that such a resolution might create repercussions. “If people realize that they can kidnap foreigners within shouting distance of the airport to get their demands met, that sets a pretty bad precedent.” The Syria crisis doesn’t need to engulf Lebanon to send it over the edge. Lebanon’s own failings as a state might be enough.

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut

34 comments
MonicaCMesa
MonicaCMesa

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Icansee4miles
Icansee4miles

The Middle East is headed into unprecedented chaos; like a 3 way WWF match, Sunni, Shia, and Israelis will take turns pounding on each other; while Iran completes their nuke.  Read Kindle's new thriller, The Bahrain Protocol, to see what Israel will do, and how this could all end; and it will surprise you!

tfine
tfine

@ghoshworld Mr. Ghosh, might TIME be interested to explore the 9/11 Museum's decision regarding Manhattan's Little Syria? Have new discovery

arvay
arvay

Maybe idiots like McCain can call for more American involvement and the prolonging of the Syrian conflict. 

Why don't we just enforce a "no-fly" zone on our aircraft carriers? That would be a positive contribution. 

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Syrian Arab NEWS Agency SANA

Archbishop El-Khouri: Syrian people aware of conspiracy volume against Homeland

Aug 15, 2013

Archbishop Louka El-Khouri, patriarchal auxiliary of the Syrian Orthodox church, stressed that the Syrian people are aware of the volume of the crisis hatched against their country, pointing out to the impossibility of dividing Syria due to the awareness of its people and their comprehension of the dangers of this conspiracy. During his meeting in Ottawa with the Syrian and the Arab communities and some ambassadors accredited to Canada Wednesday, Archbishop El-Khouri presented an explanation to the crisis in Syria and its early stages , pointing out to the Syrian leadership's wise dealing with it throughout all its stages. He clarified during a meeting arranged by the Association of the National Press Club and the Syrian National social Club that the crisis had speedily transformed into a crisis, which is clear to everyone. Archbishop El-Khouri clarified in a symposium under the title of " the Right Voice of Christianity in Syria" held by the Association of the National Press Club in Canada that Christians are being attacked by the armed terrorist groups, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra and the takfiris. For his part, Ecuadorian Ambassador in Ottawa expressed his country's support to the peaceful solution in Syria and the rejection of foreign interference in its affairs.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

.The Guardian. UK 

Syria's war has exposed the hypocrisy of western powers .

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/14/syria-australia-battle

 The conflict has become an ugly proxy battle between innumerable outside forces.

When it comes to Syria, the US and its Saudi Arabian and Qatari allies are backing Islamic fundamentalism under the guise of defeating the west’s key Middle East villain, Iran. Al-Qaida is now thriving, and the number of beheadings and other assorted acts of extreme sectarian violence have been steadily rising. It’s like the funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan never happened, or that the lessons learned after the west armed what became al-Qaida under Osama Bin Laden were wiped from the record

outspoken
outspoken

Syrian  WAR  will  end  up in  Israel.   This  dangerous  game  played  by  west  will   backfire.

dori1mega9
dori1mega9

@TIME @TIMEWorld Gushing thru the mideast, Syrian war funded by Saudi,Qatar, mainly,they like these rebels,hate Assad,who is more modern.

KateB222
KateB222

@Jarrett_San I heard about that! That's insane. Yeah no Beirut for you. You need to stay here and keep safe!!

jfusco
jfusco

So Hizballah is getting a taste of their own medicine. What comes around goes around Hiaballah.   It's about time. 

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Wrong, this is not a contact corrosion with Syria. It's an ingested infection from Iran. The Lebanese pretended not to realize the danger of incubating the Hezbollah, but the disease eventually will come to dominate their life – and death.

messy1
messy1

@outspoken No it won't. Most of the rebels are paid for by other Arabs, not the west.

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

@YehudaElyada For your information sir, Iran is what is keeping bashar in place and keeping the Al-nusra front out, therefore, we all owe Iran the greatest debt when it comes to the matters of syria


arvay
arvay

@Sibir_Russia @arvay 

You and i disagree on other issues, but are in firm agreement on this one. Our war party idiots -- the same people who got us stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are pushing for intervention.

Overwhelmingly, the American people reject this. But the Money Lobby is pressing hard. 

So thank you Russia for putting a show-stopper in the way of yet another disastrous war. 

Please,  deploy those S300 missiles with Russian crews. They will look splendid in Syrian uniforms. There are F-16s and American ground forced already deployed in Jordan, so Russia is not making the first move here, by any stretch of the imagination.

arvay
arvay

@Sibir_Russia 

Our motivations are very different -- I oppose all religion -- but we agree on policy. For as long as religion exists, people must be tolerant of others' beliefs.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Syria: The Cradle of Christianity

In the history of Christianity Syria occupies a special place. Syria, along with Palestine and Lebanon is for all Christians of the world of the Holy land. Until recently, Syria has been famous for its religious tolerance. For centuries between Christians and Muslims here has maintained an atmosphere of good-neighborliness. However,  with the beginning of the war and the arrival in the country of radical Islamism, the situation began to change.