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