Protesting, negotiations, and dysfunctional politics: The case of the abducted Lebanese soldiers

Publishing Date: 
December, 2014
Dossier: 
Conflict Analysis Project
Author(s): Yazan al-Saadi

To cite this paper: Yazan al-Saadi, "", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2014-12-23 00:00:00.
[ONLINE]: http://cskc.daleel-madani.org/content/protesting-negotiations-and-dysfun...

Full text: 
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Extinguishing a tire on fire is very hard. To start one is equally difficult. A tire must be heated to at least 400 degrees Celsius for several minutes before it catches fire. The melting rubber produces thick black smoke, bitter to the eye, and a commanding putrid smell. The environmental and health hazards are numerous, both while the tire burns and if its cooled remains are not properly disposed of.

The setting of tire fires during protest has become a common tactic in Lebanon.

Symbolically, a burning tire is a message that is hard to stamp out. The protesters may leave hours later, but the smoldering ruins will persist. By its very nature, it stands out, and therefore attracts an audience. Physically, a row of burning tires disrupts the functions of an authority – roadways are blocked, traffic becomes convoluted; the smoke and heat makes it harder for suppression and control by security forces; and the billowing black smoke can easily be used to communicate, signal, and organize.

A brief “detour” on the history of tire burning in Lebanon

In Lebanon, like everywhere else, burning tires during most acts of voicing discontent is a tried and true practice. As Willow Osgood, a journalist for The Daily Star, noted two years ago:

“Setting fire to tires is not new, nor unique, to Lebanon. It is the recent frequency and clockwork predictability that has thrown them back into headlines and punch lines. Samir Khalaf, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University of Beirut, described how burning tires were used during the Civil War as mobile, makeshift checkpoints.Tires were also burned in Beirut in 1970 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s death shocked the Arab world, and in May 2008 when Hezbollah and Future Movement fighters turned West Beirut into a battlefield. They are often burned during strikes, including the month–long strike currently being carried out by Electricité du Liban employees.Part of the appeal is that tires are ubiquitous, propped against dumpsters or along the side of the road, though some frequent protesters don’t leave it to chance.”1

Osgood ends the article with a particularly noteworthy statement. Quoting Khalaf, the sociology professor from AUB, once more, Osgood reports: “'The political situation leaves us with little to express ourselves except in an uncivil way. They are not making claims,' said Khalaf, explaining that the protesters often do not expect something in return.'When you are anxious and cannot anticipate events, this becomes one way of saying, 'We’re here.''”

Recent examples in which protesters burnt tires occurred on November 17, 2014 and November 28.

The November protests

On a cloudy Monday, November 17th, the families and friends of 28 Lebanese soldiers and policemen – held captive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since early August –  mobilized to burn tires and close several roads, including Beirut's northern highway entrance.2 The protests and closures occurred after a wife of one of the captive soldier received an early morning call from the extremist armed group informing her that seven out of the 28 were to be executed if the Lebanese government did not adhere to a specific demand – revoking the death sentences handed down to Islamist inmates in Lebanon's largest prison, Roumieh, by 4:00 pm.3

The families and friends swiftly organized and quickly gained the attention of the media, the public, and the authorities. But unlike other incidents of protests, in which the act of burning tires are perceived as nuisances, the reaction by the public and the state was glaringly attentive and sympathetic, at least on a superficial level. Members of parliament and ministers visited protest sites, attempted to ease concerns and gave assurances that negotiations were ongoing to free the captives. The government quickly met and agreed to revoke the death sentences, and ISIS announced that it had postponed the executions.4 

But the matter was far from settled. Ten days later, on November 28th, the families of the kidnapped soldiers returned to the streets en masse and closed off roads within and around the Lebanese capital, driven once again by threats – this time by al-Nusra Front –5  that it will execute one of the captured soldiers, Ali al-Bazzal.6

Unlike the protests ten days earlier, Lebanese government and security forces were less accommodating with the protesters, using water canons and physical violence to disperse the protests in a harsh manner.7 In tandem, a negotiating team was quickly dispatched and was able to successfully delay the execution.Yet, further road closures and tire-burning by the protesters took place in the following days. Their frustration over the painfully slow negotiating process was becoming louder. In response, the Lebanese government called for calm and reshuffled its negotiating team, likely motivated by growing public criticisms by protesters over its slow and seemingly chaotic management of the negotiation process.

At first glance, the incident and outcome on November 17th and November 28th may not bear much thought and could be shrugged aside like countless other protests that have come and gone over the months and years. However, taking a moment’s pause to deconstruct and understand the context behind this event i.e. taking a more holistic view, will lead to recognizing how this incident is inescapably symptomatic and intertwined with local, national, and international dysfunctions. The dilemmas at play here were fostered by economic, social, historical, and political grievances, involving and affecting an array of actors, big and small, and necessitate intricate and profound solutions.

In order to scratch beyond the surface of the events of November 17th and November 28th, a fitting starting point is perhaps that of August 2nd, 2014, the day in which the short-lived “Battle of Arsal” began.8 

The Abduction in Arsal, August 2014

Situated in the Baalbek district of the Bekaa Governorate, the town of Arsal is 124 kilometers northeast of Beirut, closer to Syrian border villages than the Lebanese capital. Its proximity to the border imparts on Arsal’s characteristics, as is common to most population centers in geographic peripheries. Namely, a constant internal conflict around its identity, matched by perpetual struggle against external authorities, Lebanese, Syrian, or whomever.

Strategic in its geographic location, the town Arsal is a key stop on the route into central Syria, making it vital and attractive in many ways.  From rebelling against the French mandate in the mid-1920s to publicly supporting the Syrian uprising in 2011, the town's unruly nature is shaped by its elites, for instance, its mayor Ali Mohammed al-Houjeiri.9 

“In Ersal (sic), babies drink rebellion and revolt with their mothers' milk”, the 48-year-old mayor had boasted during an interview with Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar in late September 2012.10

As the article reports, Houjeiri's ancestry were key in easing his transformation from smuggler to an influential local politician, which in turn, granted him a level of autonomy and power over Arsal's direction. In Houjeiri's case, he was able to both challenge and be an asset to the Syrian intelligence during the heyday of physical Syrian presence throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as work with the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.   

Despite its strategic location, and its unique links to larger political powers, Arsal is an underdeveloped town. With a population of around 35,000, the town has always been overlooked in terms of development. Much of its roads remain unpaved, and half-finished houses pepper the scenery, and a small asphalt road connects it to the rest of the Bekaa. It's population are predominantly categorized as Sunni under the sectarian system that dominates Lebanon's social and political structure.      

Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in early 2011, Arsal has found itself in a peculiar position.

On one hand, its support to the uprising made it gain allies among the anti-Syrian regime groups in Lebanon and Syria. Being part of that unofficial alliance, Arsal became a haven and supply outpost for armed Syrian opposition groups, ranging from battalions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, and later on, to groups linked to al-Nusra Front, and ultimately ISIS. 11 The experience of dealing with a large contingent of armed men for Arsal's residents and authorities is likely fraught with sensitivities.  

As Saada Allaw, a journalist for the Lebanese newspaper Assafir, reported from the border town on August 8:

“Since the 24-hour truce was broken yesterday by militants who attacked an army checkpoint in Wadi Aasa, many figures from Arsal came together to discuss their relationship with the Syrians in their village. While tensions have been steadily increasing, Arsal’s occupation by the militants was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The number of militants and displaced persons — both registered and non-registered — from Syria has totaled 150,000. Arsal is already not big enough to cater to its own residents and lacks the required services to support its population of 40,000. Despite this, the residents did not complain, instead, they sheltered 6,000 families in their homes and permitted the erection of 60 unofficial camps on their land and in their neighborhoods. Not one resident said a word about wanting to close the Syrian-Lebanese border.”12 

In the same manner, Karim Shaheen, a journalist for the Daily Star, recorded unabashedly blunt statements by a resident of the town after the Battle of Arsal, which shows how tensions were long-brewing in the background, despite Arsal's sympathies towards the Syrian uprising:

“But Ali Fliti, a resident whose cousin died with a gunshot wound during the clashes, believes otherwise. He said he wants the refugees out of the town. They all have to leave the town, no camp should remain,” he said. “We let them into our homes and  treated them well and look what happened. They destroyed the town.”Many have already left, he said: “Syria is 15 minutes away.” Fliti believes many of the gunmen emerged from the camps, and said he saw some in the vicinity himself, while a minority came from the mountainous border regions, though the refugees deny this. The resident said the emergence of the gunmen was sudden and surprising. They roamed the streets, faces covered with large beards, and some carried swords. They shot residents who defied them or who were deemed infidels, he said.“You couldn’t leave the house to even get bread,” he added.”

On the other hand, due to its political stance, Arsal's residents also find themselves at odds with the surrounding Lebanese villages in the Bekaa, many of whom are opposed to the rebels due to sectarian or other ideological reasons. 13 

This was also noted by Allaw in the Assafir report:

“Arsal sacrificed a great deal for politics, security, and its relationship with its surroundings. Some of the stakeholders in the Syrian revolution elevated the situation by talking about “The Republic of Arsal,” a 40-kilometer (25-mile) stretch of land that spans from the open borders with the countryside of Qassir, Homs and toward the capital, Damascus. These statements were being made even though the residents of Arsal were requesting that the authorities organize the presence of the refugees and control their transgressions.While some were calling for organizing and controlling the displaced Syrians, some supporters of the Syrian presence accused them of staining the image of Arsal that has been promoted by the media.A resident of Arsal bitterly laughs about the reversal of position, saying, “Those who supported keeping the borders wide open for the Syrian refugees now want their departure.” They [supporters] said, “After the occupation of Arsal, we do not want a single refugee in the village, especially the males.”” 14 

This is compounded by the sporadic cross-border bombings and shelling by the Syrian regime's army and air-force, as well as clashes at the outskirts of the town between Hezbollah and its allies against the various armed groups.15 

As Mona Alami, writing for Inter Press Service, observed about the town's predicament in July, less than a month prior to the eruption of August's five-day battle:

“Deputy mayor Ahmad Fleety admits that Ersal (sic) is paying a high price for backing the Syrian revolution. “Clashes between Hezbollah and Syrian rebels have aggravated tensions between local residents and their neighbours, and every incident is causing a backlash on the village,” he says.The official points out that an Ersal resident, Khaled Hujairi, was wounded in nearby Laboueh after the funeral of one of the Hezbollah fighters who died in the recent battles.However, the divide separating Ersal residents from those residing in surrounding villages dates back to the beginning of the uprising and a spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings between Sunnis and Shiites.Relations between the two communities took a turn for the worse after four Shiites were killed in June last year near Ersal. The trend was only exacerbated when the town remained under siege for several weeks early this year, after the village became a transit point from Syria into Lebanon for booby-trapped cars targeting Shiite areas. Ersal’s grim reality is only compounded by the town’s isolation. A small asphalt road connects it to the rest of Bekaa, and from there onward to the capital Beirut. Syrian planes frequently fly over, firing missiles into the village and the mountain tops above it. An attack this week led to the injury of seven Ersal residents.”16 

The matter is further complicated by the influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, nearly doubling the size of the town's own population of 47,000. 17 The immense pressure on the infrastructure, coupled with little to no help from the Lebanese state, has played a role in provoking further frustration for some of Arsal's Lebanese residents, which tended to be directed towards the refugees. 18 

The Lebanese public's image of Arsal is either negative or aloof. It is disconnected at best, or, at worst, seen as a threat to the rest of Lebanon. With so many issues simmering along, it was only a matter of time before an outburst of violence would occur. On Saturday, August 2nd, fighting broke out between the Lebanese army and religiously conservative militant groups associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, which are present in the town and its surroundings. The battle of Arsal lasted five days. Around 60 militants, 19 Lebanese soldiers, and 50 civilians were killed, and around 400 civilians were wounded; 24 Lebanese soldiers and 20 policemen were ultimately captured, in addition to a handful of civilians who were abducted since from the surrounding areas. The fighting ended after a cease-fire was agreed to end the siege of the town, mediated by local religious figures and the Committee of Muslim Scholars. Fighters withdrew to the surrounding hills and mountains. The Lebanese army, deployed into Arsal on August 8th, immediately conducted raids on Syrian refugee camps in the area and the rest of the Bekaa region. The raids were presented under the guise of hunting for militants who were hiding within these camps, but for refugees and activists were seen as “unjust” because it resulted in the burning of refugee tents, arrests of innocent Syrian men, and others forms of abuses such as beatings and harassment by the Lebanese army. 19 

Sporadic fighting continued around Arsal throughout the rest of August, into early September, and sprung up briefly in mid-November; the army maintained control nevertheless. Since the abductions in August, 14 soldiers and 6 policemen have been released, and 3 were executed – one of whom was a Lebanese civilian. Of the live captives, 18 are being held by al-Nusra and 11 by ISIS.  

The Simmering Frustrations of Waiting

Families and relatives of the abducted soldiers were quick to mobilize, staging a sit-in and disrupting traffic in the area of Douris on August 9th, a day after the ceasefire. 20 

Nearly every day from August 30th to October 12th, relatives of the abducted soldiers and sympathizers to the cause set up protest tents, blocked important highways and intersections, and burnt tires throughout different parts of Lebanon and its capital.

Each act was spurred onward by successive announcements of threats or videos of executions by the kidnappers on social media sites and inflamed by the slow negotiations process, carried out at first indirectly through Qatar, and, more recently, through direct negotiations by officials linked to the Lebanese government. In one case, family members of the kidnapped soldiers abducted 18 innocent Syrian workers and locked them up in a warehouse. 21 It is an act, one of many to follow by others, which mixed desperate hope that the 18 innocent Syrians would be used as pawns to swap for the captive Lebanese men, with that of a blatant expression of discrimination, one that views all Syrians as culpable. 22 Similar kidnappings along sectarian and xenophobic lines occurred during early September in the Bekaa area, as well as harassment and increased discrimination towards Syrians. 23 

But not all reprisals by the relatives, friends, or sympathizers of the kidnapped soldiers were problematic or counter-intuitive as the kidnapping or harassment of innocent Syrians. Several were aware of the need to not let things get out of control. In one very important example, the family of Abbas Medlej, a soldier who was executed by ISIS on September 7th, immediately released a statement calling for calm.“Our choice remains as is, Lebanon, a country of coexistence for all its components,” the statement by the family had said. “The terrorist act that killed our son Abbas is a crime against all Lebanese: Shias, Sunnis, Christians and Druze.” “We call on all our people to show self-control and to behave in a manner that respects the heroic martyrs,” it added. 24 

The weight and influence of the cause of the families of the kidnapped soldiers has to do with the fact that the victims are directly associated to the Lebanese military. This is evident by the fact that the current Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam urged family members of the kidnapped soldiers to “disavow Lebanese politicians” who are trying to exploit them for “political gains.”25 

The phrase, “all-unifying institution,” is commonly thrown around to describe the Lebanese army. The military is strongly associated to the quintessential Lebanese “identity”. It is portrayed as the last line of defence in protecting that identity, however undefined it may be. An attack on the military, by conclusion, is quickly propagated and in turn perceived as an attack on the very foundation of Lebanon, because: if the army cannot protect its own and remain united, how can it possibly protect and unify the entire nation?

Paradoxically, while there is much lip-service paid towards the Lebanese military by various Lebanese political groups, the army has limited resources and combat capabilities. When the Lebanese military stumbles into combat, the results are sub-par and destructive. 26 The ability of the armed groups to wound, kill, and capture Lebanese soldiers is a glaring reminder of the army's real physical weaknesses.

What is clear is that the families of the kidnapped soldiers were not entirely working in unison or systematically coordinating their efforts. Different members, and their friends, protest or act in different manners according to their capabilities and sentiments. But coordination can become a reality over time. The large sit-in held by the families a week after the execution of Bazzal is an indication of how some form of  coordination is increasing, driven by frustration towards the Lebanese state. 27 The families’ cause has the added advantage of getting attention due to their links to a major Lebanese institution, but even then, they are predominantly helpless, left to watch on the sidelines as the Lebanese government's efforts to release their family members sputters along.

The motivation by authorities to immediately solve this issue should be apparent. However, months on, the negotiation process is still ongoing, and is only propelled forward when the armed groups threaten to kill their hostages. Why is that?

The answer relates back to the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese political establishment. The divide between March 14 and March 8 political blocs, especially in regards to the Syrian uprising fed the roots of the conflict in Arsal. For certain individuals within the March 14 bloc, armed groups, Salafist in nature, were supported – often implicitly – as a counterbalance to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. The desire to wholeheartedly confront these groups is further curtailed by the involvement of regional actors, like Saudi Arabia. 28 

By being unable to present a strong negotiating front against ISIS and al-Nusra, the Lebanese government was quickly forced to secede the fate of the Lebanese soldiers and policemen to the Qataris, in the form of Qatari envoy Ahmed al-Khatib. 29 The outsourcing of negotiating power further deepens the Lebanese state's sense of impotence and the disgruntlement of its citizens. 30 Perhaps, due to pressures from the protests and the public-at-large, and keen not to seem completely out of the loop,  two other channels were opened with the kidnappers: one through the Director General of General Security Major General Abbas Ibrahim and another through Minister of Health Wael Abu Faour.31 

The demands by the kidnappers are simple. Both ISIS and al-Nusra demand the release of a number of  “Islamist prisoners” for every Lebanese soldier, a few millions of dollars, safe passage, Hezbollah's withdraw from Syria, and better treatment to Syrian refugees. 32 The question of a prisoner swap is what is currently being actively discussed, with the question of who is released, how many, and from where. However, flexibility on these matters differs greatly between ISIS and al-Nusra Front, which complicates and impedes negotiations even more. What remains clear is that the negotiations are far from over, and will likely continue for months ahead.

While the families, relatives, and friends of the captive soldiers and policemen do have some clout and their protests are constantly spotlighted and heard, they, like the Lebanese state itself, are ultimately trapped and confined by the limitations of a grander overarching political order – one governed by international interests and power plays, and which essentially neglects the welfare of the larger public.

As the negotiations oscillate from good to bad to no news, the abductees' family members are forced to watch the process of mediation from the sidelines, only to react when talks are stalled or threats are made to the safety of their loved ones. They are exceedingly becoming frustrated by the long wait, their condemnations of the Lebanese government's failures are growing ever louder, and clashes with security forces during protests will be more and more likely.

For now, the abductees' family members, friends, and sympathizers will no doubt act in the customary manner intended to express themselves and their sentiments clearly, with all its frustrations, anger, and helplessness, and most importantly, its noticeable, unignorable presence: burning tires.