In a video posted Tuesday on YouTube, three armed men, their faces concealed behind scarves, stand behind a captive in a white-walled room. They are identified as fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force in the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, broadcasting from Damascus. Identity cards are held to the camera that name the captive: Hassan Salim al-Mokdad, a man from a powerful family in Lebanon. His captors accuse him of being a sniper from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon and a close ally of Assad’s minority Alawite regime.
The video has since become a flashpoint in a murky chain of events that has heightened long-standing concerns that the Syrian conflict will spill out across its borders—and that new groups from outside the country could be drawn into the mayhem.
On Wednesday, more than 20 Syrians were taken hostage inside Lebanon, where refugees, along with opposition fighters and activists, have been flocking as Syria’s conflict rages. In an interview with Lebanese television, members of the Mokdad family said they had abducted Syrians “affiliated with the Free Syrian Army” and would release them only in exchange “for our son Hassan al-Mokdad.” according to Now Lebanon.
They also said the Mokdad family had a military wing and threatened to kidnap citizens from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, three governments that have been dedicated backers of the opposition to Assad. That threat may have already been realized. Citing a diplomat in Beirut, Reuters reported Wednesday that a Turkish national was among the hostages.
The Mokdad family said they had no plans to involve themselves in Syria’s conflict and wanted only the release of their kin. The potential ramifications from the standoff, though, seem to have shaken some in the FSA who worry that an already complicated war effort could now become even more so. Louay al-Mokdad, an FSA spokesman who is not related to the Lebanese captive, said Wednesday had been a “terrible day.” The FSA, he added, was scrambling to find Hassan al-Mokdad and release him. “We don’t know who took him,” he said. “We don’t know anything.”
Syria’s Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam and counts Hezbollah and the Shiite regime in Iran as its chief regional allies. The rebels opposing Assad, meanwhile, hail in large part from Syria’s Sunni majority. Mokdad expressed doubt that the FSA was responsible for the kidnapping in the first place, painting it instead as a plot by the regime to stir up sectarian tensions and destabilize its neighbor, which has its own Sunni-Shiite concerns. “Assad wants to bring Lebanon to civil war. He’s trying everything right now,” Mokdad said.
Conflict in Lebanon could distract international attention from the one in Syria, and it could tie up time and resources now devoted to the push against Assad, notes Imad Bazzi, an independent Lebanese activist. “Any mess in Lebanon decreases the pressure on the regime inside Syria,” he said.
He added that Lebanese people are “worried sick” about the potential of spillover conflict from Syria. “They can’t handle a war at the moment, first because it is not their war, and second because they can’t handle it economically.”
But worrisome signs are mounting. In a surprising move on Wednesday, the Assad regime turned its artillery and fighter jets on the Aleppo suburb of Azaz, where rebels have been holding 11 Shiite Lebanese pilgrims who were kidnapped in May. Though Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has been the focus of intense fighting in recent weeks, Azaz has not, leading to accusations that more attempts to sow discord in Lebanon are afoot. “Why is Assad sending his jets to Azaz?” Mokdad said. “The only reason he has is to pour oil on the fire in Lebanon.”
After television networks in Lebanon reported that some of the pilgrims had been killed in Wednesday’s strikes, according to The New York Times, their families began kidnapping Syrians as well. Three were shown on Lebanese television, and two said they’d been involved in helping the Syrian opposition.
Bazzi, the Lebanese activist, said some Syrian activists who have been based in the country have already fled. “They do not feel safe in Beirut anymore,” he said.