Kidnap in Lebanon linked to Syrian war

Taking of Turkish pilots reveals growing Shia-Sunni polarisation in conflict

Lebanese security forces stand outside the Turkish Airlines office in downtown Beirut yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Hasan Shaaban

Lebanese security forces stand outside the Turkish Airlines office in downtown Beirut yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Hasan Shaaban


Turkey urged its citizens to leave Lebanon after a militant group claimed the abduction early yesterday of two Turkish airline pilots travelling in a shuttle bus from Beirut’s international airport to their hotel.

The group, calling itself Zuwwar Imam Ali al-Reda, demanded the release of nine Lebanese Shia pilgrims held since May 2012 by a Syrian rebel faction.

“[The pilots] are our guests until the hostages . . . are freed,” said the group, which blames Ankara for the abduction of the Shias by the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Northern Storm brigade operating along the Turkish border.

Pilot Murat Akpinar and co-pilot Murat Agca were taken less than 1km from the airport in a largely Shia area. The group’s name is that of the Shia sect’s eighth imam, seen as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Lebanon’s interior minister Marwan Charbel said an investigation had been launched while Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davuloglu spoke to Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati.

Denied connections
Relatives of the kidnapped Lebanese denied any connection with the abductions, but Daniel Shoaib, brother of one of the pilgrims, thanked the group for taking the pilots.

“We reject kidnappings but our relatives are facing injustice . . . The only condemnation should be toward Turkey [which] allowed the situation to reach this point.” After protracted negotiations two pilgrims were released.

The Northern Storm brigade has demanded the freeing of all female prisoners held by the Syrian government but did not reciprocate when a number of women were freed last month.

After a long siege, this brigade – bolstered by fighters from al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (army of foreigners and defenders of Islam) – has overrun Menigh military airbase in Aleppo province. The operation was launched when the base wall was breached by suicide bombers deployed by the Jaish, a group consisting of Russians, French, Turks and Tajiks commanded by a Chechen.

This effort revealed the close co-operation between Free Army brigades and foreign jihadis. This has caused Britain and the US to postpone arming the Free Army.

Veteran jihadis
There are an estimated 6,000 foreign jihadis in Syria and reinforcements constantly cross from from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. These groups, which have recruited veteran fighters from wars involving Muslims, are highly motivated, structured, and enjoy control and liberal funding from Qatar and wealthy Arabs.

By contrast, the 1,200-odd Syrian rebel groups are largely made up of raw recruits and army defectors led by local commanders or warlords who secure finance from Saudi Arabia and prosperous Syrians.

Opposition National Coalition chief Ahmed Jarba intends to convene a gathering of militia chieftains in Jordan, but it is unlikely he will be able to unite these groups under General Selim Idriss, the head of the military council: they have resisted pressures to combine for the past two years. Consequently, the Free Army, which has recently clashed with foreign groups, is in no position to challenge increasing jihadi ascendancy.

The involvement of Sunni jihadis in Syria has drawn in Shias from Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah movement, which has deployed seasoned urban fighters with the Syrian army.

This has increased the polarisation between Sunni and Shia and could lead to the rise of Shia militias to back the army in the battle against Sunni jihadis seeking the government’s overthrow.

Aware of the growing dangers posed by the conflict, US secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have agreed to press forward with the plan to convene an international conference to launch negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition.