Robert Fisk – The Independent August 13, 2012
In just seven minutes, Michel Samaha got my book un-banned after seven years on Lebanon’s blacklist. Even Rafiq Hariri, when he was Prime Minister couldn’t get Pity The Nation into Beirut’s book shops. “There is a sentence about a Syrian tank guarding a hashish field in the Bekaa Valley,” he told me. “This is not the time for me to take this up.”
But the moment that Samaha was appointed Hariri’s Information Minister in the 1990s, he called up his chum Brigadier Jamil Sayyed, the immensely pro-Syrian head of the Lebanese General Security, and Sayyed unbanned my history of the Lebanese civil war with a flick of his signature. Sayyed, I should add, is a rather sinister figure who looks like the sort of chap who ties ladies to railway lines in silent movies. The academic and journalist Samir Kassir, no friend of the Assad regime, claimed Sayyed threatened him. Shortly thereafter, Kassir was murdered by car bomb. The UN also believed Sayyed was involved in Hariri’s murder – President Bashar al-Assad was said to be very, very angry with Hariri for wanting to free Lebanon from Syria’s loving embrace – but then, after four years’ imprisonment without trial, the UN released Sayyed because the “witness” upon whom it based its evidence turned out to have given false testimony. And the old UN donkey admitted, privately of course, that Assad may not have been involved.
Michel Samaha is a Greek Orthodox Christian, originally a supporter of the right-wing Christian Ketaeb but experienced a “road to Damascus” conversion and ended up a friend and adviser of Assad. He was also – conspiracy theorists, take careful note of this – a holder of the Legion d’Honneur, awarded, so they say, for helping the French secret service. So all the greater was the thunderclap last week when 10 heavily armed members of the Lebanese General Security intelligence section bust into Samaha’s summer villa in the Metn hills, handcuffed the ex-minister and former MP, and took him off for interrogation in Beirut. Very quickly, a tale unfolded in the Lebanese press; Samaha had been tasked by Syria’s Brigadier-General Ali Mamlouk to set off bombs in northern Lebanon to provoke a civil war between Sunni and Shia, creating the now famous “spillover” of Syria’s bloodbath which the world has long been predicting – and paid £120,000 to arrange the whole shooting match. A video allegedly shows Samaha transporting explosives from a car in an underground car park. Another supposedly depicts him announcing that Assad approved of the whole affair. Samaha, said the press, had admitted the lot.
Lebanese editorials adopted a western journalistic perspective, pompously telling readers Samaha’s innocence must be assumed unless he is proven guilty, while piling on the accusations. One of the few journalists to object was Scarlett Haddad of L’Orient Le Jour. When Lebanon is awash with explosives, guns and missiles, she asked, why would Syria need to import bombs into Lebanon? And why would a figure like Samaha, who has warned against any sectarian conflict in northern Lebanon, lend himself to such a plot? Indeed, why should a well-connected man get mixed up in the dirty business of handling bombs, a task normally assigned to voyous, or “street kids”? A report that Assad personally phoned the Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman, to intervene was denied by Suleiman.
Among those who dwell in the deep politics of Lebanon, however, there are other thoughts. New sanctions have been levelled against a Syrian oil firm. Sanctions were taken against Lebanese Hezbollah two days ago. Madame Clinton is raging against Assad but doing nothing. Leon Panetta, the cliché-laden US Defence Secretary, said the battle for Aleppo was “the nail in the coffin” of the Assad regime. But right now the armed revolutionaries are retreating. In the end, it’s all about Iran, the target of Qatar’s and Saudi Arabia’s and America’s and Israel’s suspicion and hatred. Break Iran – via Syria.
So how does the arrest of an Assad intimate, Michel Samaha, fit into all this? Just another rusty nail in the coffin? I’ve been calling him for six months to ask for his assessment of the Syrian crisis. Once he was in Damascus, and said he’d call back next day. When in Beirut, he said he’d call back. He didn’t. Then his wife told me he was in Paris. I remembered the Legion d’Honneur. Now we’re all waiting for the videos.