Lebanon is being kicked around like a football by competing Middle East forces – Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on the one hand, Iran, Syria and Hizballah, on the other. The Arab-Muslim radical camp has managed to throw the United States and France to the sidelines.
Without a president since last November, a government whose authority is confined to part of the capital and selected regions of the country, Lebanon is being torn limb for limb with no redeemer in sight.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report the latest chapters in this sorry saga:
This week, Lebanese intelligence services embarked on an undercover operation for whisking to safety officials named by prime minister Fouad Siniora and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to serve on the international Hariri tribunal.
The tribunal has been set up to prosecute Lebanese and Syrian suspects in the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Our sources report the operation aims to spirit the appointed tribunal justices and their families – 75 souls in all – out of Lebanon to West Europe.
Since no date has been set for the trial to begin, nor has the roster of suspects and witnesses been finalized, the Lebanese judges on the run from the long hand of Syrian intelligence face several years of exile.
The decision by the Lebanese government and United Nations to move them urgently out of harm’s way was triggered by the car bomb which murdered counter-terror police officer Capt. Wissam Eid, aged 31, on Jan. 25 outside Beirut.
The blast, which claimed three other fatalities and wounded 38 people, was treated as a warning that Syrian military intelligence was moving down a hit list for torpedoing the trial by every means, fair or foul.
The murder of Capt. Eid prompted frantic consultations between the Lebanese prime minister, the UN Secretary General’s legal adviser, Nicolas Michele, and CIA officials.
They concluded that Damascus had removed the gloves in its bid to prevent the assassins of Rafiq Hariri ever coming to trial. Any party connected with the case, even foreign UN investigators, their contacts and their families, were in imminent peril and must be removed to safety.
The ace investigator pinned down Syrian’s murky role
That decided, Siiniora flew to Riyadh the next day to ask the royal court and Saudi intelligence to cover UN costs for transferring the threatened judges and their families to safe asylum and defray their substantial security expenses. The judges are to be scattered across three or four European countries. Dozens of guards will be hired to provide close protection over a lengthy period.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources report that the Saudis accepted the charge.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, Capt. Eid paid with his life for tracking down the cell phone conversations between the Beirut-based Lebanese plotters of the Hariri murder and their masters at Syrian military intelligence headquarters in Damascus. Acting on behalf of the Lebanese security service, he produced this vital evidence of Syrian complicity for the prosecution.
He also uncovered the forward command Syrian intelligence had set up 500 m from the blast scene in Beirut to communicate with, and pass orders, to the hit-team and logistical personnel.
Then, two years after that investigative feat, Capt. Eid used the same method to pick up and decipher the satellite and cell phone conversations the radical Fatah al-Islam held with their controllers outside Lebanon during the Palestinian Nahr al-Barad camp battle. The communications took place during the four-month battle the terrorists waged with the Lebanese army from April to August 2007.
Capt. Eid’s men handed these secret signals to Adm. William Fallon, the US CENTCOM commander and chief of counter-terror operations, whose aid and advice helped the Lebanese high command win the Nahr al-Barad campaign.
The signals’ transcripts offered proof that the weapons shipments smuggled into the camp, including heavy 220mm Katyusha rockets, were provided by Syrian military intelligence on the orders of its chief, president Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Gen. Assaf Shawqat.
The work performed by Capt. Eid produced the discovery that Fatah al-Islam’s chief, Shaqer Abessi, had been acting on operational orders from Syrian intelligence – not his al Qaeda commanders in Iraq and Syria. This explained why al Qaeda never came out in support of Abessi’s operation in northern Lebanon, although he was their man; nor did they send him reinforcements when Fatah al-Islam had its back to the wall.
Hizballah stirs the civil war pot
That Syria is escalating its barefaced assassination tactics in Lebanon indicates that Damascus, backed from Tehran, is more confident than ever of its ability to wrest veto control of the Beirut government for its stooges, by stalling the election of Lebanese chief of staff Gen. Michel Suleiman as president.
This week four more grave events exacerbated Lebanon’s troubles:
1. Sunday, Jan. 27, the pro-Syrian Hizballah and its allies staged a violent demonstration in the Shiite Sheikh district of Beirut, on the pretext of electricity cuts. A Lebanese army unit, posted in the Christian Ein Ruimana neighborhood opposite, opened fire on the Shiite demonstrators, killing 8 and injuring 38. Most Middle East observers viewed the incident as Hizballah’s opening shot for sparking Lebanon’s next civil war.
Both these Beirut districts are notoriously violent and extremist and were the first bloody flashpoints of 1975 Muslim-Christian civil war.
2. Tuesday, Jan. 29, Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah and the top army commander Michel Suleiman met to calm tempers. They were attended by their intelligence chiefs, Wafiq Shafa and Gen. George Khoury.
Nasrallah threw down the gauntlet when he said that Gen. Suleman now faced the big test of his true loyalties. If he aspired to be president, he must prove he was not a tool of the government but of the Lebanese nation.
3. As the week wore on, the conduct of some Lebanese high-ups indicated that they regard a civil war as inevitable. Senior Christian politician Michel al-Mur announced orders to his militia to close off his province on the Mattan mountains east of Beirut to the entry of all of Lebanon’s rival groups, especially the Maronite Christians, in a bid to keep the burgeoning conflict out of his domain.
4. One of the most prominent Arab brokers between the camp led by Iran, Syria and Hizballah, on the one hand, and the Lebanese anti-Syrian majority government and military chiefs, on the other, is the Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani.
This week, he quietly made the rounds in Damascus, Beirut and Paris. In Paris he even discussed the Lebanese crisis with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak.
The trouble with the Qatari leader’s mission is that all the parties involved in the Lebanese imbroglio suspect that his real motive is to upset the Saudi applecart in Lebanon rather than solve the crisis in Beirut.