View Full Version : The Hand of Syria Seen in Lebanese Violence

05-23-07, 08:21 AM
May 23, 2007
The Hand of Syria Seen in Lebanese Violence
By Rick Moran

The worried eyes of the western world are turned toward Lebanon as the under-trained and under-equipped Lebanese army does battle with the Palestinian terrorist group known as Fatah al-Islam, in and around the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp just outside of the northern port city of Tripoli.

So far, the terrorists are staying true to form. They have taken refuge among the civilian population in the densely crowded camp and are using innocents as human shields. The Lebanese army, under orders to destroy the terrorists, tries to spare civilians the worst of the fighting but apparently, to no avail, as many of the refugees streaming out of the camps this evening report dozens of corpses lying in the street and in buildings.

The death toll as reported by Lebanese media is 66, which includes 30 Lebanese soldiers, 18 Fatah al-Islam gunmen, 17 Palestinian refugees and one Lebanese civilian. That number is clearly too low, as the United Nations reports gunmen opening fire on convoys bearing relief supplies into the camp, killing several more civilians who approached the trucks to get much-needed water and food. And as a tenuous, undeclared cease fire seems to be holding over the last 24 hours, thousands of Palestinians have taken advantage of the lull to flee the camp, relating stories about the fierce firefights in the streets and saying that the stench of death is everywhere.

Much has been made in the western media of Fatah al-Islam's ties to al-Qaeda. There is ample evidence that, in fact, the leader of the group, Shakir al-Abssi, has been inspired by Osama Bin Laden, adheres to al-Qaeda's ideology of establishing a world wide Caliphate, fought with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, and shares al-Qaeda's goal of kicking the United States out of the Middle East.

But many Lebanese see the hand of Syria in al-Abbsi's machinations. They point to the fact that around the time that al-Abssi was sentenced to death along with al-Zarqawi in Jordan for assassinating the United States diplomat Laurence Foley, he was freed from a Syrian jail where he had spent three years for plotting terrorist attacks there. Released last fall, he made his way immediately to the northern Lebanese refugee camp Nahr el-Bared where he began to recruit not only Palestinians but also Arab fighters and jihadists from as far away as Chechnya.

The New York Times caught up with the 51 year old al-Abssi in March of this year and found him well-organized and fanatical in his desire to hurt the United States. At that time, Syria denied sending Abssi to Lebanon to create chaos calling the charges "baseless."

But the facts are that Syria has a long history of supporting Palestinian radicals in Lebanon and using them as surrogates to create havoc. Dr. Walid Phares:

The Fatah al Islam is the latest marriage of convenience between a group of committed Jihadists, rotating in the al Qaeda's constellation but gravitating around Damascus influence. The group accepts Bashar's support and the Syrian regime tolerates the organization's "Sunni" outlook: Both have a common enemy, even though they may come at each other's throats in the future. The men of Bin Laden anywhere in the world, including in Lebanon, have the same standing order: Bringing down the moderate Arab and Muslim Governments (even in multiethnic societies) and replace them with Emirates. The men of Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmedinijad have converging goals, bring down the democratically elected Government in Lebanon and replace it with a Hizbollah-Syrian dominated regime, as was the case before 2005. Thus each "axis" has one objective in Lebanon: crush the Seniora Government. They will take all their time to fight each other after.

Indeed, Phares paints a grim future for Lebanon unless the Lebanese army can annihilate Fatah-al-Islam:

Today's clashes between the al Qaeda linked terror network and the Lebanese Army are a prelude to terror preparations aimed at crumbling the Cedars Revolution, both Government and civil society this summer. It is a move by the Assad regime to weaken the cabinet and the army in preparation for a greater offensive later on by Hizbollah on another front. In short the Damascus-Tehran strategic planners have unleashed this "local" al Qaeda group in Tripoli to drag the Lebanese cabinet in side battles, deflecting its attention from the two main events, highly threatening to Assad: One is the forthcoming UN formed Tribunal in the assassination case of Rafiq Hariri. The second is the pending deployment of UN units on the Lebanese-Syrian borders. Both developments can isolate the Syrian regime. Thus, the Fatah al Islam attacks can be perceived as part of a preemptive strategy by the Tehran-Damascus axis. But the results, if the Lebanese Army fails to contain the terrorists, could be very serious to the Seniora Government and the UN. Worse, if the first piece of a Sunni Triangle is put in place in Lebanon, this could affect the geopolitics of the War on Terror globally: The rise of Salafi Jihadism along the coasts of Lebanon, from Tripoli to Sidon, passing by Beirut. This Emirate-to-be, could become the closer strategic enclave of Bin Laden to the US Sixth Fleet, Europe's cities and Israel.

The violence has temporarily healed the breach in Lebanese politics, as all sides in the current stand off between the Hezb'allah-led opposition and the coalition of democrats, elected in June, 2005 following the forced departure of the Syrian army, are united in urging strong action by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government to destroy the threat posed by Fatah al-Islam. But the longer the battles go on, the more dicey the situation for the government. That's because one faction in Lebanon is absolutely livid with the government for attacking the terrorists in Nahr el-Bared; the 200,000 Palestinian refugees spread out in 11 camps along the border.

Violent demonstrations against the actions taken by the Lebanese army were reported in several camps today as word got out that many civilians were killed in the attacks. In an effort to ease tensions in the volatile camps, Prime Minister Siniora met with several Palestinian leaders and agreed with them on working out what was described as a "mechanism" to contain the situation in the besieged camp. Details of the agreement were not forthcoming but "Palestinian sources told Naharnet they focus mainly on pacifying the camp's civilian population, estimated at nearly 30,000."

The big problem is that it is illegal for the Lebanese to police the camp itself. Only with the agreement of several Arab states, signatories to the Cairo Agreement brokered by Egyptian President Nasser, would the Lebanese be allowed to police their own territory. This holdover from before the ruinous civil war has made the refugee camps a haven for violent groups, where their jihadist ideology finds fertile ground among young, disaffected Palestinian youths.

If Dr. Phares' analysis is correct (this editorial in The Daily Star confirms the rise of militant terrorist groups in Lebanon) it becomes of paramount importance for the Lebanese army to succeed in wiping out the threat posed by Fatah al-Islam. To that end, the United States is reportedly sending military supplies to the Lebanese army and has promised much more through the Paris Roundtable on aid to Lebanon. France has also offered aid as have other Arab nations who see the threat of radical Islam taking hold in Lebanon as threat to their regimes as well.

But the question of Syrian involvement in this episode (and several huge bombs that have gone off in and around Beirut over the last 72 hours) cannot be answered definitively. The reach of Syrian intelligence into all facets of Lebanese society is still so vast that it becomes easy for the government to blame Damascus for just about anything. But the confluence of timing and events would seem to point the finger at Syria as benefiting the most from chaos that would ensue in Lebanon if the terrorists were successful in creating a new "Sunni triangle" in the north.

President Assad is desperate to avoid the consequences that would flow from the sitting of the International Tribunal. Just Tuesday, the United Nations discussed the option of seating the Tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, since the Lebanese government and Parliament are prevented by Hezb'allah and their allies from taking up the matter themselves. Hezb'allah ally Speaker Nabih Berri has refused all pleas from the Parliamentary majority to call the legislature into session to consider the enabling legislation for the Tribunal. And the Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who is widely seen as doing Assad's bidding in Lebanon, also refused to use his powers to call Parliament into session. Thus, the Prime Minister has called upon the United Nations to seat the Tribunal itself.

This is not an optimum solution for Lebanon. And there is opposition in the Security Council from Russia, Syria's major benefactor. But it seems likely that Russia would not press the issue to the point of vetoing such a plan which means that sometime in the next 2 or three months, there will indeed be a prosecution of the murderers of Rafiq Hariri as well as a close look at nearly 15 years of Syrian meddling in Lebanon.

The evidence so far points a finger directly at President Assad and his top henchmen, including his brother who ran Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, as well as his brother in law. The Tribunal will also reveal the involvement of several prominent Lebanese military and security officials.

This much is known. What has not been revealed is the evidence that links this vast conspiracy to the numerous other bombings and assassinations - including last November's killing of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel - that have silenced so many critics and opponents of Syria in Lebanon. It is expected that the evidence will be overwhelming that President Assad has carried out a campaign of terror directed against his political foes in Lebanon. And it is this prospect that has Assad doing everything in his power - including backing Hezb'allah in their effort to unseat the ruling majority government - to prevent the Tribunal for doing its work.

A convenient convergence of interests between Fatah al-Islam and Syria? Or outright collusion? The answer to that question may hold the key to the future of a free and independent Lebanon.