The strange case of Michel Samaha

A terror plot serves as an ugly example of Lebanon’s troubled relations with the Syrian regime
Sunday 17/04/2016
Former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha (C)

BEIRUT - Many people were shocked when former Lebanese Information minister and Syrian ally Michel Samaha was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in 2015 and then re­leased for having served “most of his time in prison”.
Even supporters of the “resist­ance axis” were startled by the le­niency of the military court’s deci­sion. It was a blow to the judiciary and a slap to the state of Lebanon. So there is little wonder that, fac­ing political and popular pressure, a court quashed the sentence and ordered a retrial.
Lebanon’s Military Tribunal of Cassation on April 8th sentenced Samaha to 13 years in prison with hard labour, a decision that Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and leader of the Future Movement, said “corrects” the previous verdict.
The charges against Samaha were far from being trivial or unsubstan­tiated.
Wissam al-Hassan, head of the In­ternal Security Forces’ information branch who was assassinated in Oc­tober 2012 — weeks after Samaha’s arrest — had presented overwhelm­ing evidence that Samaha planned to trigger sectarian violence in Leb­anon.
The plan allegedly included as­sassinations of Christian leaders and others who opposed Syrian President Bashar Assad and bomb­ings at Iftar meals, when Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast. Video and audio recordings depicted Sa­maha’s culpability and the direct involvement of high-ranking Syrian security officers.
The plot’s alleged purpose was to portray the Assad regime as secu­lar and the only viable alternative to the chaos and sectarian conflicts engulfing Syria. In 2012 the United States, United Kingdom and a num­ber of Arab countries viewed the Syrian regime as a brutal dictator­ship that did not hesitate to quell peaceful demonstrators with unim­aginable violence.
Failing to address the basic de­mands of a population for more participation and freedom and to undertake real reforms, Assad tried to redirect attention to some other “danger”: that of chaos and sectar­ian conflicts, raising the spectre of another Iraq, one that would en­compass the Levant and extend to Lebanon and all of Syria if his re­gime collapsed.
This was not the first time an Assad regime faced the charge of playing the arsonist-fireman game — light the flame with the hope of being assigned the task of extin­guishing it.
During the Lebanese civil war, Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, was accused by many Lebanese of at­tempting to preside over their destiny and of inciting divisions among political factions and reli­gious groups to present his position as broker of peace and guardian of civil order.
In 2006, during the troubles that led to violent sectarian conflict in Iraq, wasn’t Bashar Assad accused by the Iraqi prime minister of lend­ing support to terrorists and al-Qae­da-linked groups in Iraq?
More recently, haven’t there been numerous reports indicating that top Islamic State (ISIS) leaders were radicalised in prisons controlled by Bashar Assad’s regime and released at a critical moment of the Syrian revolution?
Since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the rift has been deep­ening between Sunnis and Shias. The militant Shia group Hezbollah’s support of a Syrian regime pum­meling cities with barrel bombs inflamed Sunnis across the Arab world and most certainly those in neighbouring Lebanon.
On the Christian side in Lebanon, things do not bode well, either. Many Christians say they feel they are disenfranchised from their po­litical rights, namely a fair represen­tation in the parliament.
Their leaders missed the oppor­tunity to bridge the widening gap between Sunnis and Shias. Instead of rising up to the challenge to bro­ker a dialogue between their fellow citizens, asserting that Lebanon was a land of conviviality, they arranged themselves into opposing camps. Today they are united in a scheme, the promotion of “Christian rights”, that would fuel sectarian divisions.
In a nutshell, Samaha was sen­tenced. The plot foiled. But sectari­anism remains on the rise in Leba­non and most of the Arab world.