Overnight one family changed the Lebanese political landscape, 24-hours before the long awaited parliamentary dialogue on national security.
The powerful Shi’ite Meqdad family, whose stronghold is the Beqaa valley which divides the coast from Lebanon’s North-Eastern border with Syria, announced on Wednesday afternoon that they had kidnapped at least twenty Syrians, as well as one Turkish citizen and a Saudi Arabian.
That the announcement is from the self-described "Meqdad Family’s Military Wing" says much about the family’s activities. Included in the day’s dramatic events was the raiding of a local TV station, Al-Yasariya, where the family abducted two of the Syrian nationals they now hold. One local security operations officer for an NGO described them, if you hadn’t guessed, as,"fucking tough bastards".
Sectarian kidnappings have returned to Lebanon, read today’s world headlines. But this is a convenient place for many to start their timeline.
It starts with the abductions of 11 Shia in Syria by an unnamed opposition militia back in May — the Free Syrian Army has been at lengths to deny involvement. The Shi’ites have been variously been described as pilgrims or Hizbollah affiliates. What is true is that they were travelling with their wives and families back from Iran, through Syria, and onto Lebanon. Only the men were taken.
Upon her return, one of the wives of the kidnapped men alleged, "they stopped our bus after they pointed their weapons at us. They said that they are the Free Syrian Army and want to get us away from the shelling. But they were aiming to abduct the men"
The event doesn’t square with the image the Free Syrian Army is trying to project, and in its optimistic frenzy the west has been just as keen to ignore it. So while the saga of negotiations has been front page news on a daily basis in Lebanon, it has been gently overlooked in most international media.
Only a couple of days after the kidnappings, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was guaranteeing they’d be released within hours, while Hizbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah was urging patience in one of his regular addresses, telling the families of the abducted, "You can demonstrate peacefully in squares but not stop the daily life in Lebanon".
All was going according to plan, but some speculated the hostages had moved into Turkey as final settlements were made. On 31 May Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati received a call from his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Ergodan, who, according to the Lebanese government, assured him the hostages, "were safe and on their way to Beirut."
No one knows what happened next, but evidently the deal fell through and shortly after, the families of the 11 began a campaign of tire-burning, road-blockading and eventually, by25 July Shia groups had conducted several kidnappings in Lebanon against Syrians who supported the opposition, each time demanding the release of the Shia hostages.
A series of kidnappings and counter kidnappings had passed uneventfully, when on Monday this week Hassan Meqdad was kidnapped by Syrian opposition forces in Damascus. The opposition claimed he was a Hizbollah operative and Hizbollah has strongly denied this. The Meqdads have proven capable of retaliating in any case, and since Tuesday night have been scouring the country for supporters of the Syrian opposition.
The number of targets and efficiency of the operation has brought about the "return of sectarian kidnapping" headlines, but the most politically significant aspect to the Meqdad family’s actions, could be more meaningful than this. It is the Saudi and Turkish citizens kidnapped, which changes the game here.
This makes the Meqdads the first group in the broader Syrian conflict to make backers of the Syrian opposition — Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and The UAE — along with their nationals, culpable for the activities of the opposition and legitimate targets of reprisal attacks.
The Gulfis have responded by telling all citizens to immediately leave Lebanon, with Saudi, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE all issuing statements to that effect. The way the coalition of Sunni governments react to the kidnappings will be crucial to if and how the situation escalates in Lebanon now.
Those spruiking a civil war, may be disappointed though. Hizbollah has been at pains to stay at arms length from all of the violence and it would be a brave group of Syrians that chose to carry out military operations against Shi’ites inside Lebanon and open another front in a war which is not treating them kindly.
Such is the atmosphere that hangs over the National Security Dialogue that has been months in the making, and post-poned once already. The topic is really Hizbollah’s arms, and the factions that have a problem with them are expected to gain little ground.
Meanwhile, the Meqdads are far from finished. They promised a "hefty haul" late on Wednesday night and will present their "catch" to the press soon. The country may not be ready for what they drag in.