It is not surprising for the Lebanese that the Syrian regime has not stopped interfering in the Lebanese political scene since its troops withdrew from the country in 2005. Their allies and strategic partners, such as Hezbollah, have made sure it continues. And when the Syrian uprising started, the regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters did not stop at the borders. Syrian opposition figures are not safe in Lebanon.
Intelligence groups and institutions affiliated with the Assad regime and its allies are taking orders to threaten, kidnap and hand Syrian opposition members back to the Syrian authorities. Lebanon continues to be used as an extension of the Syrian regime’s territory.
Meanwhile, almost all Lebanese officials, from both the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, along with their media institutions, have been outrageously silent regarding the brutality of the Assad regime and its interference in Lebanon. At this historic crossroads in the region, silence and denial is akin to complicity with the dictators. The Lebanese need to take a unified position, especially as the kidnapping of Syrians is taking place on Lebanese soil. Our fragile sovereignty is seriously at stake.
On Thursday, The Syrian Council for Human Rights reported that Shibli al-Ayssami—a leading Syrian opposition member and one of the original founders of the Syrian Baath Party, who escaped Syria when Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970—went missing from Lebanon on Tuesday.
Ayssami’s daughter told NOW Lebanon that he went missing after going on a walk around 4:30 p.m. in Aley. He had arrived in Lebanon on May 19 from the US, where he resides. No one knows where Ayssami is, and all authorities contacted by his family were unable to deliver any information on his whereabouts.
This is not the first time a Syrian opposition member has disappeared in Lebanon since the uprising started. In March, four Syrian citizens were reportedly kidnapped by Internal Security Forces First Lieutenant Salah Ali al-Hajj. Jassem Merhi al-Jassem was arrested by the Lebanese army on February 24, while he was distributing fliers condemning the Syrian regime and was handed to the ISF. But he was later released and reportedly kidnapped by al-Hajj the same day, along with his brothers, Syrian opposition groups claimed.
Also, last week, Lebanese authorities handed back to their Syrian counterparts three Syrian soldiers who fled to Lebanon; an act that violates both international and domestic law.
“A person who has fled into Lebanese territory has not committed a crime at the local level; he is a refugee, and as a refugee, is entitled to protection and intervention from the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees],” said Nabil Halabi, head of the Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
Lebanon also ratified the Convention against Torture, Article 3 of which condemns handing over a refugee at risk of being subject to torture, he added. “By handing them back, the soldiers will be facing death, not only torture,” said Halabi.
In addition, Halabi said that the soldiers were detained without a warrant by security forces, not judicial officers, which is a violation of the Lebanese penal code. Additionally, in this case, the military intelligence did not have the authority to send the soldiers back – only the Ministry of Justice did.
Meanwhile, Lebanese activists are being threatened and intimidated by members of the pro-Syrian Baath Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) in Lebanon for attempting to voice support for the Syrian people.
These are just examples of the continuation of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, which, despite the troops’ withdrawal and the exchange of embassies, still holds. The security agreements that were signed during the Syrian presence in Lebanon allow such practices to continue.
Created in 1991 to oversee the implementation of the treaties between Syria and Lebanon, the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council (SLHC), together with a host of so-called brotherly accords, has come to symbolize the enduring imbalance in the Lebanese-Syrian dynamic.
Since its inception, the SLHC approved several bilateral agreements in economic and financial areas and implemented the controversial 1991 Fraternity, Cooperation and Coordination Treaty (FCCT), under Article 6 of which the SLHC was formed. The FCCT formalized Syria’s role as powerbroker in Lebanon, and the SLHC’s General Secretariat acted as a virtual embassy in Beirut during Syria’s presence here.
The FCCT, which is still active, is composed of six articles that emphasize the Lebanese government’s role in protecting Syrian security. Article 2 allows the Syrian government to carry out any military or security operation in Lebanon to preserve its security without having to ask for the Lebanese government’s permission.
The 1991 Defense and Security Agreement highlights the importance of Syrian security, stressing that “both states shall prevent any activity, act or organization in all military, security, political and media fields that may cause prejudice to the other country, and shall endeavor to abrogate the laws and regulations that do not conform to this treaty.”
After the exchange of embassies between Syria and Lebanon, many March 14 politicians waged a campaign against these agreements and called for their abolition, fearing future interference by the Syrian regime. Though this is happening today, and no one is saying anything.
Abolishing these agreements is a must if Lebanon wants to act as a sovereign state. However, annulling the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council would require a vote by parliament after a draft proposal is submitted by the government or a group of MPs. We do not have a government, but there must be a group of MPs out there who could draft a proposal of the sort. Getting it passed would be another matter altogether, but wouldn’t it at least be a worthy attempt?
Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon