BEIRUT: By charging a high-ranking Syrian military official in a terror plot aimed at destabilizing Lebanon, Lebanese authorities have sent “a clear message” to the embattled regime in Syria that they will not allow their territory to be used for settling scores, political analysts said Monday.
The analysts also concurred that the charges against Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, the chief of Syrian National Security Bureau, are unlikely to lead to a break in diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria despite long-simmering tension between the two countries following a spate of deadly incidents on their shared border.
A military judge began Monday to interrogate former Minister Michel Samaha two days after he was formally charged by Lebanon’s Military Tribunal of being part of a terror plot to destabilize the country. Mamlouk and a Syrian officer, identified as Brig. Gen. Adnan, were also accused of being part of the conspiracy. The men are suspected of organizing a series of terrorist attacks involving explosives in north Lebanon, as well as “planning to kill religious and political figures.”
The charges against Samaha, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and his reported confessions to his involvement in the alleged plot sparked calls by some March 14 politicians for Lebanon to sever diplomatic ties with the Assad regime.
“The charges against Ali Mamlouk are a clear message to the regime in Syria that the government will not allow anyone to undermine the security and stability in Lebanon as a result of the uprising in Syria,” professor Fadia Kiwan, head of the political sciences department at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University, told The Daily Star.
She said the charges against Mamlouk will damage Lebanese-Syrian relations. “But the Lebanese government will not take measures such as severing diplomatic ties with Syria or expelling the Syrian ambassador as demanded by the March 14 parties,” Kiwan said.
Simon Haddad, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, also said the charges against Mamlouk will have “a negative impact” on Lebanese-Syrian relations.
“The charges against Ali Mamlouk are a clear message to the Syrian regime that the Lebanese government will not allow anyone to use Lebanon as an arena to settle scores,” Haddad told The Daily Star.
He ruled out the possibility of the government taking a tough stance on the Syrian regime following the discovery of the alleged terror plot. Haddad said the charges against Mamlouk are the maximum measures the government can take against the Damascus government over the terror plot.
“Due to its setup, the government is unable to enter into a confrontation with the Syrian regime by taking measures such severing diplomatic ties with Syria, the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon or the closure of the border with Syria,” Haddad said.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government is controlled by Syria’s allies, the Hezbollah and March 8 parties.
Ahmad Moussali, professor of Islamic studies at AUB, said the charges against Mamlouk were “a clear message” from Lebanon against Syrian attempts to destabilize the country.
“The charges against Mamlouk will definitely affect Lebanese-Syrian ties,” Moussali told The Daily Star.
He warned of what he called “a catastrophe” in Lebanon if the terror charges against Samaha and Mamlouk were approved by the Military Tribunal.
“March 8 parties will not accept allegations that their ally, Syria, could send explosives to destabilize Lebanon,” Moussali said.
Ahead of the Military Tribunal’s final decision in the case against Samaha and Mamlouk, Moussali predicted “an escalation of the military and security situation on the two countries’ border in the north and in the Bekaa.”
“The Syrian side has accused Lebanon of sending arms and gunmen through its border in the north and the Bekaa,” he said.
Last month, the Lebanese Army deployed troops in the northern and eastern border with Syria following a spate of deadly incidents along the state lines. The military deployment was in line with a government decision aimed at protecting citizens following repeated Syrian incursions into Lebanese territory. Several Lebanese have been killed or wounded by Syrian shelling of Lebanese border villages as Syrian government troops have fought anti-regime armed groups in recent months.
Kiwan, the USJ professor, said the Lebanese government would demand the extradition of Mamlouk if he was found guilty of transporting explosives to Lebanon.
“But Syria will not extradite Mamlouk on the pretext that it does not trust the Lebanese judiciary,” she said.
Kiwan added that it’s time to amend the security and military agreements signed by Lebanon and Syria following Syria’s repeated violations of the Lebanese border. She said the agreements, among other things, call for the extradition of wanted or accused people to the other country.
Both President Michel Sleiman and Mikati have praised the role of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch in uncovering the alleged terror plot.
Mikati said that the results of the investigation with Samaha would determine the stance to be taken by his government in order to defend the country’s sovereignty. He vowed not to allow anyone to use Lebanon as an arena for settling scores.
“We have adopted the disassociation policy out of our conviction not to interfere in the affairs of others. Therefore, we will not allow anyone to interfere in our affairs or to turn Lebanon again into an arena for settling scores or to import external crises to it,” Mikati said in a statement Sunday. “In light of the information and results, we will take a political stance and decision that is in tune with safeguarding Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence and not to allow anyone to jeopardize the security and safety of the Lebanese,” he added.
Kiwan said the charges against Mamlouk have caused an embarrassment to the Lebanese government, which is perceived as pro-Syria, “especially if the investigation widened and the charges against Mamlouk were confirmed.”