May 21, 2007 | 22:07 GMT

8 mins read

Lebanon: A Syrian Hand in Political Instability

A car bomb exploded in an upscale market in a predominantly Sunni district of west Beirut, Lebanon, on May 21. The blast came shortly after deadly clashes died down between Lebanese forces and Sunni militants in northern Lebanon, in which at least 71 were killed. The standoff in the north, along with this latest bombing and a May 20 bombing at a popular Beirut shopping mall, likely are the result of Syria's politically motivated fostering of a jihadist-oriented group known as Fatah al-Islam. With Lebanese presidential elections and the fate of an international tribunal to try Syrian suspects over the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri looming, political stability in Lebanon will continue to remain hostage to the negotiations Washington holds with Damascus and Tehran over Iraq.
Fighting continued for the second day May 21 between the Lebanese army and the Syrian-backed Fatah al-Islam movement in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The catalyst for this standoff was the raid by Lebanese security forces early May 20 on a suspected Fatah al-Islam safe-house in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The government forces were pursuing suspects involved in a May 19 bank robbery in Amioun, where armed men stole more than $100,000. Lebanese security forces thought they were conducting a limited operation against a Fatah al-Islam hideout, but the situation soon spiraled out of the control when the militants responded by attacking army checkpoints in the north. Security sources in Lebanon say that lack of intelligence, combined with poor coordination between the army and internal security forces, led to an unforeseen massacre. The Fatah al-Islam militants have since retreated to Nahr al-Bared, where the group's strength is concentrated, to confront the Lebanese army. Under a 1969 Arab accord, the Lebanese army is not permitted to enter the refugee camps, and thus has had to limit itself to lobbing mortar shells into the camp to flush out militants, who are fighting back with machine guns and grenades. Though a cease-fire has been called, the Lebanese army does not yet appear to be fully in control of the situation, and the Lebanese government of Western-backed Fouad Siniora is unwilling to risk the backlash of allowing the army into the camp, which houses more than 40,000 Palestinians.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are spread across 12 camps. The largest is in Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon, where intra-Palestinian clashes between rival factions are a regular occurrence. The second largest is Nahr al-Bared in the north, where Fatah al-Islam is based. Fatah al-Islam split off from Fatah al-Intifada, a group formed in 1983 by disillusioned members of the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Syria formed Fatah al-Islam from Fatah al-Intifada remnants after it pulled its army out of Lebanon in April 2005. The group is largely isolated from the other Palestinian factions and subscribes to a Salafist doctrine; it has attracted jihadists from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen and even Bangladesh. Fatah al-Islam's cadres are believed to number around 280 fighters, and receive their munitions and new recruits from Syria. The expansion of Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared camp has led to a serious power struggle among the Palestinians in Lebanon, most of whom are not at all happy to see this new organization under Syria's direction treading on their turf. Palestinian guerrilla movements operating under the umbrella of the PLO decided after lengthy meetings led by Fatah al-Intifada's secretary-general in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, to eliminate Fatah al-Islam. This makes a showdown between the rival Palestinian factions inevitable. Shaker Abssi, who heads Fatah al-Islam, is said to have links with former al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Along with al-Zarqawi, Abssi was sentenced to death in Jordan for his suspected involvement in the 2002 killing of a U.S. diplomat in Amman. He served a three-year jail sentence in Syria and then moved into Nahr al-Bared to set up Fatah al-Islam. It appears Damascus helped facilitate Abssi's new base of operations, and has used him as a point-man to manage the group's activities. Nahr al-Bared is located close enough to the Syrian border to allow easy transit between Syria and Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam could not have used force to take control over the camp without strong backing from Syrian intelligence officers in the region. Fatah al-Islam is of use to Syria in a variety of ways. The Alawite-Baathist regime in Damascus long has been adept at funneling different shades of militants across its borders and using militant proxies in Lebanon for its own political aims, regardless of religious, ideological or political orientation. By turning a blind eye to foreign jihadists traveling to Iraq to fight, for example, Syria has promoted itself as an integral piece to any negotiations the United States conducts over Iraq to control the Iraqi insurgency. Syrian intelligence and security forces in the region also have facilitated the movement of many of these jihadist-oriented militants into Lebanon, which became most apparent with the surfacing of Fatah al-Islam in November 2006. Syrian intelligence recently permitted a fundamentalist officer named Khalid Najjar to enter Lebanon. Najjar has been on a mission on behalf of Syrian military intelligence to facilitate the arrival of Fatah al-Islam recruits from the Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus to the Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon. Syria's ability to manage these jihadists is questionable, however, considering the jihadists view the Alawites as kuffar (unbelievers). Though Syria has an interest in demonstrating to the United States that it can rein in the jihadists if need be, these militants could be operating more as mercenaries than as militants motivated purely by ideology. Though Syria's Alawite rulers are more ideologically in tune with Hezbollah than the Palestinian factions are, the Syrian government understands that Hezbollah has its own political considerations and so Damascus cannot rely as heavily on the Shiite militant group to carry out politically motivated attacks in Lebanon. A Palestinian faction such as Fatah al-Islam is seen as a more expendable insurance policy for Damascus, and better suited for this type of militant activity. Many of Fatah al-Islam's cadres have been waiting to go and fight in Iraq, but have been kept in Nahr al-Bared by their handlers, thus giving Syria substantial control over how it negotiates with the United States regarding its "commitment" to crack down on the flow of insurgents. It is believed Fatah al-Islam members also have been trained to carry out attacks against the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon should the need arise for Syria to aid Hezbollah in flushing out obstacles to Hezbollah's operations in the south. Syrian cooperation in funneling Sunni militants across its borders helps Damascus keep jihadist attention off the Alawite-Baathist regime in Damascus. Syria's militant management skills appear to have paid off thus far in the eyes of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but very well could end up creating a bigger militant threat for Damascus to deal with down the road. The flare-up in Nahr al-Bared coincides with the May 20 car bombing in a predominantly Christian area in Beirut and the May 21 car bombing in a residential area of Verdun, a predominantly Sunni district of west Beirut. Sources in Beirut have little doubt that the bombings and the uptick in militant activity are tied back to Fatah al-Islam's role as a tool for Syria to demonstrate to its opponents in the Lebanese government the too-high cost of having Siniora get the U.N. Security Council to unilaterally establish an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Key members of the Syrian regime are likely to be implicated in that killing. The Lebanese opposition, led by Syria's allies in the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements, blocked a tribunal decision in the Lebanese parliament by mass protests, but Siniora now has placed the issue squarely in the hands of the United Nations. Just because it is the United Nations' turn to move on the tribunal issue does not mean Syria is left without options for derailing the investigation. Syria is using its usual political intimidation tactics (through its militant proxies) to drive the point home that any actions taken by Lebanese officials against Syrian interests will not go unpunished. The two main suspects in the assassination, Syria and Hezbollah, will simply refuse to cooperate and participate in the tribunal under the pretext that any deal between the Siniora government and the United Nations lacks the consent of the Lebanese parliament. Hezbollah is privately relieved to have the tribunal issue out of its hands, and is waiting for September presidential elections for a new government to be formed and for the group to expand its presence in the Cabinet. With elections looming and negotiations between Iran and the United States over Iraq in full swing, both Hezbollah and Syria are looking for assurances from Tehran that neither will be compromised in any deal the Iranian ayatollahs work out with Washington, be it over the international tribunal or the disarming of Hezbollah's militia. Though Tehran has made assurances to both parties that their interests will be preserved, Hezbollah and Syrian commanders are working on their contingency plans. The focus of attention in Lebanon will soon shift from the tribunal to the election of a new president as all sides are scrambling to find a suitable compromise candidate to serve their own interests. If Damascus is skeptical that Iran will be able to protect Syrian interests in its dealings with the United States, al Assad might try to stall the process of electing a new president by pushing for a rival government by the end of the summer.

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