The Michel Samaha Affair
It is no secret that intelligence branches in Lebanon are divided – like all the spoils of the state – among the various sects. Thus, the Shia control the General Security, while the Maronites (nominally) control the Army Intelligence, the Catholics control the Security of the State apparatus, while the Hariri family controls on behalf of Saudi intelligence the Information Branch [of the Internal Security Forces], which has become – with US, French, and Saudi generous assistance – a private militia for the Hariri family.
The role of that apparatus was increased after 7 May 2008, when the private Hariri militias proved their utter incompetence. Consequently, the US (with the cooperation of Arab regimes) worked to elevate the status of the Information Branch beyond the status and abilities of other Lebanese intelligence branches. It receives devices and equipment – not to mention secret sources of funding – that other branches only dream of receiving.
The Branch is controlled by Wissam Al-Hassan, a former bodyguard of Rafik Hariri, and serves under the director-general of the Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi – who sits on the board of the Prince Nayef University for Security Studies. So the relationship between this apparatus and Saudi Arabia is not hidden or concealed. Rifi often travels to Saudi Arabia and is believed to have played an advisory role to the Saudi Ministry of Interior.
The Information Branch shocked the political class in Lebanon this week with the arrest of Michel Samaha, one of the loudest pro-Syrian regime politicians in Lebanon. He even advised Bashar al-Assad on his relationship with the West. Samaha maintained close ties with the French, Canadian, and US governments and played secret diplomatic and security roles.
It should be noted that what we know about the Samaha case came from the Information Branch itself, and it does not have a history of credibility. We remember the great fanfare with which the Branch hailed the arrest of the four generals during the investigation into the assassination of Hariri.
All the scenarios and plots about the Hariri investigation that were leaked to the press by the branch proved to be false. Yet, one has to react to the news on the assumption that there is meat (or tofu, if you are vegetarian) to this case.
The story is quite explosive: a sinister plot by the Syrian regime and its man Samaha to instigate sectarian conflict in Lebanon, to mobilize Christians against Sunnis, and to carry out assassinations against key Sunni personalities in North Lebanon. The plot also entails bombing of Syrian refugee sites in Lebanon. The plot is attributed to Ali Mamlouk – a typically ruthless but shrewd security man from the Hafez al-Assad days.
If the plot is true, it reveals a degree of criminality and stupidity on the part of the Syrian regime not seen before. Is it possible that the Syrian regime is now so desperate that it resorts to such schemes? And how does such a scheme really enhance the political and security position of the Syrian regime, when such attacks would have only mobilized the Sunni community in Lebanon against the Syrian regime in ways similar to what happened following the assassination of Rafik Hariri?
The leaked story has many details and it reads like the typical US FBI entrapment stories. A man who works as a security adviser to Minister Mohammad Safadi brought the idea (equipped with a pen camera) to Samaha, who in turn brought it to the attention of Ali Mamlouk in Damascus. But why would Mamlouk, or even Samaha, fall for such a scheme so quickly and so easily? Then again, stupidity has been a feature of the Syrian regime, especially in the era of Bashar.
If the leaked story is true, it will have important repercussions. It shows – if true – a degree of criminal cynicism on the part of the Syrian regime and it reveals a degree of sectarian manipulation that casually pushes Lebanon to the brink if not throes of civil war.
But the story and reactions to it also reveal something important: that Hezbollah has maintained an undeclared distance from the Syrian regime. Hezbollah did not rally one bit to the support of Samaha and seems to be acting cautiously given the severity of the accusations and their sectarian nature.
If the story is true, Hezbollah may discover that its ally in Damascus may be up to a scheme that could harm friends and foes of Syria in Lebanon.