Kidnappings tied to Syria threaten Lebanon's fragile peace

Eleven Syrian nationals were kidnapped in Lebanon Thursday in a spree of abductions, raising concern about renewed violence there.

A masked man from a Lebanese Sunni group who blocked a road linked to the Lebanese-Syrian border, checks a Syrian car which carries Syrian passengers, in Masnaa, eastern Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 16. They said their action was in retaliation to the abductions taking place by Shiites in Beirut.

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From the outset of the Syrian uprising, there have been warnings that a protracted conflict could undo the region's fragile balance of power, particularly in neighboring Lebanon, where sectarian divides are still strong beneath a veneer of quiet maintained by delicate political arrangements. 

But now, with a slew of tit-for-tat kidnappings and protests, months of harboring rebel fighters in Sunni-dominated border regions, and receiving retaliatory shellfire from the Syrian Army, the conflict is boiling over to Lebanon, too. Most Shiites in the country back President Bashar al-Assad – a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam – while most of Lebanon's Sunnis oppose him.

"This," said Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, according to Reuters, "brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn."

Yesterday the powerful Meqdad clan – a large, well-armed Shiite family from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley over which the government has minimal control – disclosed that it had kidnapped more than 30 people in the last day in retaliation for what they said was the Free Syrian Army's kidnapping of their family member, Hassan Selim Meqdad. The FSA believes him to be a member of the Shiite militia and political group, Hezbollah, and accused him of entering Syria with almost 1,500 members of the group, according to The Wall Street Journal

Hezbollah and the Meqdad family insist that he is not a member of Hezbollah. His family says he was in Syria for work, as an employee of a Lebanese bank. The Meqdad family also threatened to continue the kidnappings unless Hassan Selim Meqdad was released, WSJ reports. 

Meanwhile, news of a Syrian government offensive on the northern Syrian city of Azzaz brought Lebanese out onto the streets in protest, blocking the road to the airport. They were demanding the release of 11 Lebanese Shiites kidnapped in Syria months ago, who were being held in a building in Azzaz that was hit by government fire, according to The Wall Street Journal. There were unconfirmed reports that some of the captives were wounded or even killed in the offensive, according to BBC reports.

One of those kidnapped by the Meqdads is a Turkish national, and his captors said that he would be the first to be killed, according to Now Lebanon. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that a Meqdad spokesman said Saudis and Qataris might be kidnapped as well.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have been open supporters of the Syrian rebels.

In response, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar all urged their citizens in Lebanon to leave yesterday out of concern that their support for the Syrian rebels could make their citizens targets, the Financial Times reports. 

Lebanese "watched with apprehension as the government and security forces made no apparent attempt to intervene as boasts of mass kidnappings were playing out on national television," according to The Wall Street Journal:

The Lebanon kidnappings underscored the fragile balance in the country, where sectarian tensions are deep. The government is a delicate and often dysfunctional offset between rival camps—with parties allied with the Shiite Hezbollah militia and political party dominating government posts, and opposition Sunni and Christian factions controlling some institutions. Feudal-like political leaders rule local areas. The country's army, under the 1989 accord that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war, is supposed to maintain neutrality.

Lebanon's divisions are so deep that any intervention by the country's security forces risks making matters worse, according to Khaldoun al-Charif, an adviser to Prime Minister Najib Mikati. He said calls were being made to all political faction leaders to contain the crisis.

"The role of the government is to try to preserve the balance as much as possible to keep the country from imploding," said Mr. Charif.

The kidnappings and protests are only the latest in a series of skirmishes and small incidents that seem to be gaining momentum. In a report yesterday, the Monitor sketched out some of the events of the last few months:

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. 

A Shiite resident of southern Beirut who is close to the Meqdad family told the Monitor yesterday, "Everyone is getting ready for action. The mood here is really bad. This is going to get much worse."

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