A series of tit-for-tat abductions this week of Shiite Lebanese and Sunni Syrians threatens to further undermine stability in Lebanon as the sectarian nature of the brutal conflict in Syria deepens and spreads.
Members of the Meqdad clan, a powerful Shiite tribe from the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, announced today that the the "military wing" of the family had abducted more than 20 Syrians in Lebanon whom they alleged were fighters with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Meqdads said that the abductions were in response to the kidnapping, allegedly by the FSA, of Hassan Selim Meqdad in Damascus at the beginning of the week. The FSA accused Hassan Meqdad of being a member of Lebanon's militant Shiite group Hezbollah, a strong supporter of the Assad regime. Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have denied the claims, with the latter saying that he was an employee of a Lebanese bank.
"The family's military wing kidnapped several Syrians. We are not afraid of anyone," said Maher "Abu Ali" Meqdad, speaking on behalf of the family at a press conference in the Bourj al-Barajneh suburb of southern Beirut.
The Meqdad clan does not have a formal armed faction, although some members of the family do serve with Hezbollah and, like all Bekaa Valley clans, they are fierecly independent, live by strict tribal codes of honor and solidarity, and scorn the authority of the Lebanese state. It would be a rare Meqdad who does not own at least one gun.
Maher Meqdad said that a captain and a wounded man were among the hostages. All of the alleged FSA men were kidnapped in north Lebanon. Tensions have been building for months in north Lebanon between Sunni Lebanese who support the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Shiite Lebanese who back the Assad regime.
Some Sunni villages strung along the northern border have become de facto safe havens for the FSA, with rebels slipping across the border at night to attack Syrian army positions. In retaliation, Syrian forces stage nightly bombardments of these Sunni villages to strike at rebel infiltrators and to punish the Lebanese for hosting the FSA.
Last week, clashes broke out between members of the Shiite Jaafar tribe and Sunni residents of the remote northern border town of Akroum. The Lebanese army deployed reinforcements in the mountainous area to help restore calm. In May, the abduction by the FSA of three Lebanese Shiites (one of them a Jaafar) who lived just inside Syria sparked a week of fighting and the retaliatory kidnapping by the Jaafars of more than 30 Syrians. The hostages were subsequently released in a prisoner swap.
But the tensions between Lebanese Shites and Sunnis are hardening as the conflict in Syria worsens.
"Everyone is getting ready for action. The mood here is really bad. This is going to get much worse," says a Shiite resident of southern Beirut who is close to the Meqdad family.
The Lebanese government, the majority of which is composed of allies of Damascus, has adopted a policy of disassociation with the crisis in neighboring Syria. However, there are indications that the government is beginning to distance itself from the Assad regime.
Last week, the Lebanese police detained and indicted a former Lebanese cabinet minister and close personal friend of Mr. Assad on charges of plotting a string of bomb attacks in north Lebanon at the request of the Syrian leadership. Ali Mamluk, a top Syrian security chief, was also indicted, an unprecedented step for a country that has long lived in the shadow of its powerful neighbor.
Still, the Lebanese government faces an uphill struggle to contain the spreading tensions in Lebanon and has little leverage against the powerful Bekaa Valley tribes like the Meqdads. Two weeks ago, the government was forced to suspend its annual program to eradicate hashish in the Bekaa due to fierce armed resistance by three of the most powerful tribes who had weeks earlier forged a mutual defense pact to protect their lucrative but illicit crops.