August 20, 2012
Armed members of the Meqdad family, a powerful Shiite Muslim
clan from the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, announced
on Wednesday that they had kidnapped at least 40 Syrians and a Turkish
national, sparking a wave of similar kidnappings and riots across Lebanon.
Although the Meqdads claimed that the Syrians they kidnapped were members of
the Free Syrian Army, a spokesman for the FSA denied this, saying that the
hostages were ordinary Syrians who had fled to Lebanon to escape the violence
In videos aired on Lebanese television and rebroadcast on Al Jazeera English, masked gunmen from
the Meqdad family stated that they had taken the hostages in retaliation for
the capture of one of their relative, Hassan al-Meqdad, in Syria by a group
claiming to be members of the Free Syrian Army. The Saudi-owned television
station Al-Arabiya broadcast a video on Wednesday of a
bruised Meqdad confessing that he was a Hezbollah sniper sent to Syria to aid
the Assad regime.
Both Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have issued statements
denying that Hassan al-Meqdad is a member of Hezbollah. His family claims that he
was living in Syria for over a year and working for a Lebanese bank. In fact,
from June describe the relationship between the Meqdads and Hezbollah to be
contentious at best, sometimes erupting into violent clashes. To complicate
things even further, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army denied ever
kidnapping Hassan al-Meqdad in an interview with Lebanese television station
Following threats made by members of the Meqdad family against
nationals from Persian Gulf countries, which they see as aiding and abetting
the FSA, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab
Emirates began evacuating
their citizens from Lebanon on Thursday. Rumors
of another Lebanese civil war brewing have begun to appear in the media, and
Sunni-Shiite tensions appear to be at an all-time high in Lebanon.
But who exactly are the Meqdads, and what is their
connection to Hezbollah? A former diplomat who prefers to remain anonymous says
that they are one of many Shiite clans from the Bekaa who maintain armed wings.
The AP reported
on Thursday that some of these clans are reputedly involved with the growth and
trafficking of narcotics, but the source says the Meqdads are not major players
in this trade.
"The Meqdads are basically a large business empire...not
all very legal," he said. "Unlike other major clans they are not much involved
in hashish production...but they do petty marketing of drugs over which they at
times get in trouble with Hezbollah."
So are they Hezbollah or aren't they? Experts
differ on this point. Bilal Saab, a fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, claims that despite
past flare-ups between the Meqdads and Hezbollah, the two have always worked
"The Meqdads have fought alongside Hezbollah
since its inception," says Saab. "If they clashed in the past, it might be
because Hezbollah overstepped their boundaries, but Hezbollah works to maintain
a partnership with the Meqdads because they provide them with recruits,
territory, and loyalty. In return, Hezbollah provides them with social services
Saab stresses that Hezbollah exerts iron-fisted control over Dahiye, the southern suburb of Beirut where
the Meqdad's hostages are reportedly being held.
"Nobody holds hostages in the Dahiye without the knowledge
and consent of Hezbollah," he says. "I believe that this represents Hezbollah's
attempt to support the Syrian regime inside Lebanon."
Asked why both Hezbollah and the Meqdad family have denied a
relationship with each other, Saab says that Hezbollah doesn't wish to
jeopardize fragile alliances with other factions in Lebanon.
"Maintaining plausible deniability is always important,"
says Saab. "Hezbollah does not want to portray itself as a group that is
heavily involved with the Syrian conflict. They're attempting to create a
delicate balance between maintaining their political alliances at home and
supporting the Syrian regime."
However, Timor Goksel, former spokesman and
senior advisor to UNIFIL in Lebanon and professor at the American University of
Beirut, says that although they do maintain ties with each other, the Meqdad
clan is a separate entity from Hezbollah and the two are frequently at odds.
"Today, you can find many Meqdads in the national army, police...and
Hezbollah," says Goksel. "This is how they survive. As far as I know, Hezbollah
maintains cordial, working relations with all the clans without interfering in
their lives as long as Hezbollah's interests are not threatened. I am sure
Hezbollah is not happy with the spate of kidnappings as they know well that
they will be accused. I know they are trying to cool it off by discreet
contacts but they won't openly declare war on a major clan that can tear apart
the Shiite community."
Goksel doesn't believe that Hezbollah would be willing to take its
support for Assad far enough to kidnap Syrians, even if they are thought to be
members of the FSA.
"In the Bekaa, kidnappings have always been a traditional way
of conflict resolution, long before Hezbollah emerged," he says. "Yes, Hezbollah
vocally supports the Assad regime because their vital interests would be
compromised should Assad be replaced by an unfriendly regime. But how far would
Hezbollah go? It does care about the opinions of its own constituency who are
not united in supporting the Syrian regime."
When asked for comment, Hezbollah Member of Parliament Ali Fayyad
said that everybody affiliated with Hezbollah was under strict instructions not
to speak with any members of the media.
on Thursday that the Meqdads had called a halt to their kidnapping operations
and denied that they had ever meant to target Gulf nationals. Although they
released 20 Syrians that were determined not to be members of the FSA, the
Meqdads held on to a remaining 20 Syrians as well as the Turkish national. According
to a report
by the Daily Star, a Lebanese
newspaper, this announcement followed a dispute that occurred when Ali Meqdad,
a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament who also belongs to the Meqdad
clan, visited the family compound.
This makes sense, according to Goksel. "When Arab countries stop their nationals from
staying in or visiting Lebanon, economically the biggest losers will be the
Shiites who provide most of the tourism services," he says.
warns that the spate of kidnappings could lead to larger conflict.
"If the other
major tribes decide to support the Meqdads, we are talking 100,000 armed men,"
he says. "If that happens, you don't want to be here."
seem to lend credence to this scenario. Although the Meqdads appear to have
slowed their kidnapping spree, other Shiite clans have started to take up their
cause. The New York Times reported
on Thursday that members of the Zeeiter tribe, another large Shiite clan,
announced that they had kidnapped four additional members of the FSA from
hospitals in the Bekaa.
In the meantime, according to the Daily Star, Turkey, a regional sponsor of the Free Syrian Army, has
to Lebanon that any violence against its citizens will result in consequences
for Shiites living in Turkey. This was echoed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the
UAE. The warning was made in response to threats against the Turkish national
by members of the Meqdad family.
"If Hassan (al-Meqdad) is killed, the first hostage we
will kill is the Turk," Maher al-Meqdad, the clan's spokesman, told
In a separate incident,
members of a previously unknown group calling themselves the Mukhtar al-Thaqfi
Brigade announced that they had also kidnapped 10 members of the Free
Syrian Army on Wednesday.
Sunni Muslims also reportedly rioted in the Bekaa valley on
Thursday, protesting the kidnappings and expressing their support for the Free
Syrian Army. Reuters reported that another Turkish national was kidnapped
on Friday, and the U.S. Embassy issued a security warning
to its citizens in Lebanon the same day. The Meqdads also announced
on Friday that they had kidnapped Abdullah al-Homsi, a spokesman for the FSA.
Despite months of effort on the part of Lebanese politicians
to keep violence in Syria from spreading across the border, it appears the
Syrian conflict has ignited already simmering sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
The next few weeks will determine to what extent happenings in Syria influence
its war-weary neighbor.
Sulome Anderson is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy
and a recent alumna of Columbia University's graduate school of