More than meets the eye

Put it together, and it’s almost like the Grand
Unified Theory of Everything. A bank robbery. An
obscure terrorist group with pretensions of al-Qaida
affiliation. A Palestinian refugee camp. A
two-year-old political assassination. The war in Iraq.
Last summer’s war with Hizbullah, and possibly another
one on the horizon. Even – how could there not be? – a
convoluted conspiracy theory.

In Lebanon, where so little is simple, the standoff at
Nahr el-Bared is much more than meets the eye.

At first glance, the battle between the army and Fatah
al-Islam fighters in the squalid Palestinian refugee
camp north of Tripoli is just like the skirmishes that
periodically erupt all over Lebanon.

Street battles between militants armed with assault
rifles and shoulder-fired missiles and soldiers who
attacked the group’s apartment hideouts with tanks and
mortar shells are par for the course in Lebanon. The
dozens of killed and wounded on both sides, and
thousands of refugees sent scurrying to safety in the
past two weeks, are nothing compared to the atrocities
of the civil war that racked Lebanon from 1975 to
1990, or to the cumulative effects of fighting among
the country’s numerous sectarian groups since then.

To judge by Lebanese reaction, though, this is
different. It isn’t just the way the situation
erupted, after some of the group’s several hundred
gunmen allegedly robbed a bank and, during ensuing
exchanges of fire with security forces, killed (some
say beheaded) off-duty police officers. Hundreds of
soldiers have surrounded Nahr el- Bared, with popular
support to liquidate the renegade group. A 1969
agreement with the Palestinians prohibits soldiers
from entering refugee camps, but the army is prepared
to break that deal to ensure Fatah al-Islam’s total
surrender.

‘We cannot afford to bargain. We cannot compromise on
the issue of terrorism,’ Prime Minister Fuad Saniora
said Tuesday night, as heavy clashes ended several
days of relative calm.

‘The weapons of radical Islamists are now part of the
Lebanese equation,’ a Beirut-based political analyst
told The Los Angeles Times. ‘There is no real choice.
If we reach a point where Fatah al-Islam’s existence
in the camp is accepted, the situation will be very
dangerous.’

Ostensibly, Lebanon fears an al-Qaida cell sprouting
in the land of the cedars. And this concern springs
from the fact that Fatah al-Islam’s self-proclaimed
leader, Shaker Youssef al-Absi, is a vocal supporter
of al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has fought
alongside al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq. Most of the
gunmen under Absi’s command are not local Palestinians
but, as in other al-Qaida groups, a mix of Muslims
from around the Arab world and even southern Asia.

This, however, is where the Nahr el-Bared incident
starts to morph into something stranger… and more
significant.

‘TO LOOK at this from an al-Qaida perspective is
completely mistaken,’ says Tony Badran, a research
fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies who specializes in Syria and his home
country of Lebanon. He says Fatah al-Islam is much
more closely tied to Syrian President Bashar Assad
than to Osama bin Laden.

Absi, Badran points out, fled from Jordan to Syria in
2002 to avoid a conviction for the murder of an
American diplomat in Amman. ‘Not only did Syria not
extradite Absi to Jordan, but it only sentenced him to
three years in prison. Then, all of a sudden, he
appeared in Lebanon,’ he says.

‘So you dig deeper and you ask, ‘What is this Fatah
al-Islam, the so-called al-Qaida in the Levant?’ And
you find that it has no religious paraphernalia…
because it was a break-off from Fatah al-Intifada,
which is purely Syrian. Where do you think they are
getting their weapons from? From caches belonging to
Fatah al-Intifada and the PFLP-GC, which is another
purely Syrian organization. It’s just way too
suspicious.’

Most Lebanese have been quick to blame the bloodshed
at Nahr el-Bared, like so many other violent incidents
in their country, on Syria. Hizbullah, however, has
tried to deflect that notion. In criticizing last
week’s shipment of US weapons and aid to the Lebanese
army, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said that Lebanon was
being dragged into an American war against al-Qaida
that would destabilize the country.

Saniora – whom Nasrallah has spent seven months trying
to remove from office – angrily defended his choice to
accept the weapons with an unmistakable dig at
Hizbullah.

‘Don’t we want to protect Lebanon? Who defends
Lebanon?’ Saniora said, claiming that Nasrallah’s
criticism exposed a desire to ‘keep the army weak in
order to justify the presence of other armies’ – an
easily recognizable reference to Syria, Hizbullah’s
close ally.

For Saniora to point to Syria, Badran says, is not a
mere knee-jerk reaction.

‘Look, there was a specific time line involved,’ he
says. ‘On May 16, there was a report in Al-Hayat that
European diplomats in Lebanon were very concerned that
Syria or ‘regional actors’ would use Fatah al-Islam
against UNIFIL in the south, or possibly some other
targets. This was just before the introduction of the
draft in the UN pushing for an international tribunal
[on the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese
prime minister Rafik Hariri]. Two days after this
discussion in the UN, this whole thing in Nahr
el-Bared blew up.’

Other things blew up, too: bombs in Beirut’s Verdun
and Ashrafieh neighborhoods – one Sunni and the other
Christian, both important tourism hubs – as well as a
third in Aley, a largely Druse mountain resort just
outside Beirut.

(A purported al-Qaida official warned the Lebanese
government to halt its offensive against Fatah
al-Islam, or else ‘we will tear out your hearts with
traps and surround your places with explosive
canisters, and target all your businesses, beginning
with tourism and ending with other rotten
industries… We warn you for the last time, and after
it there will only be rivers of blood.’)

It is no coincidence that these bombs targeted the
populations that are now loosely aligned against Syria
and Hizbullah, according to Badran. Particularly
interesting, he adds, is that Syrian Foreign Minister
Walid Muallem and Vice President Farouk a-Shara
responded to the bombings by saying that they wouldn’t
have happened if Saniora’s coalition had acquiesced to
Hizbullah’s demand for a national unity government.

‘These were not-so-subtle threats to depose Saniora,’
he says. ‘Assad has been saying since the end of last
summer’s war [between Hizbullah and Israel] that the
Saniora government is an Israeli product and has to be
removed.’

Of course, all this could be just an accumulation of
coincidences. A few commentators prefer to believe
that Fatah al-Islam is actually a front group for
Hariri’s son Saad, head of the Future Party which
leads the anti-Syrian coalition in Beirut. According
to this theory (which happens to be popular with
communists), the billionaire Saad and the Saudis have
set up Sunni terrorist cells to pretend to be involved
with al-Qaida or Syria, so as to provide a smoke
screen for America’s own machinations in the Middle
East.

Assuming the more straightforward explanation of
continued Syrian interference in the neighbor that it
occupied for 29 years, though, the question remains:
Why would Syria plant a fake al-Qaida group in a
Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon?

‘Because,’ Badran says, ‘if the Lebanese army can’t
prove that it can maintain peace and security in the
country, then the main currency that Syria sells – the
only currency that Syria sells, actually – stability
in Lebanon holds its value.’

IF SANIORA manages to survive this challenge, and if
the threat of Fatah al-Islam succeeds in galvanizing
popular support for the authority of the government
and its army, Syria will not be the only loser.
Hizbullah, in fact, may have even more to lose.

Nasrallah has definitely misplayed this conflict. He
has drawn fire from just about all quarters for last
weekend’s speech in which he warned the military
against setting foot in Nahr el-Bared. This was widely
interpreted as siding with a group that most Lebanese
consider foreign terrorists – and against the army, a
growing symbol of Lebanese unity.

Michel Aoun, Nasrallah’s unusual Christian partner in
the Lebanese opposition, is backing the army. That
leaves Nasrallah all alone on the politically
incorrect side of the Fatah al-Islam issue.

Give credit where credit is due, then: All of this
makes Rafik Khoury something of a prophet.

Khoury, editor-in-chief of the Al-Anwar daily, said
toward the end of last summer’s war that Hizbullah
would squander what credibility it had gained in the
fighting if it changed its focus from its foreign
enemy to its domestic ones.

‘Survival will give Hizbullah confidence and
strength,’ Khoury said. ‘It can only lose if it
embarks on taking on its critics. It will lose the
moment it turns its military capability into a
sectarian weapon.’ In that case, he warned, ‘what
comes after the war will be more dangerous than the
war itself.’

Seven months after Nasrallah led thousands of
protesters to the doorstep of Saniora’s office,
demanding his resignation and the implementation of
radical changes to Lebanon’s system of governance that
would favor the Party of God, one would have to admit
that Hizbullah’s ‘sectarian weapon’ has done some
mighty damage to the one who wields it.

‘When Hizbullah started these rallies,’ Badran says,
‘Nasrallah calculated that he would be able to split
the Sunnis. But you know what? It didn’t work. The
Sunni community has rallied – the vast majority of it,
at least – against Hizbullah.’

The mufti of Mount Lebanon, one of the country’s most
prominent Sunni figures, has called Hizbullah a burden
on Lebanon, and said that it ‘made us curse their
resistance.’

The warnings of Badran and other analysts that
Nasrallah is trying to effect an Islamic revolution in
Lebanon along the lines of Iran’s Khomeinist state –
with Hizbullah’s militia in the role of the
Revolutionary Guards and Nasrallah assuming the mantle
of the supreme ruler, at the head of a Shura council –
are being assimilated and reiterated by young Lebanese
Christians, Sunnis and Druse, whose religious or
political beliefs make them loath to see such a
development.

‘Nobody wants a military conflict with Hizbullah,
because it would be hell,’ Badran says. ‘But it’s
coming.’

TO BE SURE, though, Hizbullah remains extremely
popular among Lebanon’s Shi’ites. To tell just how
deeply ingrained sympathies for the group can be,
witness the testimony of a blogger calling himself
‘Perpetual Refugee.’ After hours of listening to a
Shi’ite friend tell him that Hizbullah’s political
assault on the government is about protecting the
rights of Shi’ites in Lebanon, Perpetual Refugee
explodes.

‘Rights? Rights? What the f*** are you smoking?
Nasrallah will give you rights? He doesn’t want you or
your kind! To him, you are not a Shi’ite. You’re an
infidel.

‘Ya habibi,’ says the blogger to his friend, ‘You are
a gay man who happens to be Shi’ite. And you are not
just gay. You are a flaming homosexual. Nasrallah
would rather chop off your penis and feed it to his
Israeli captives than ever allow you to be yourself
while proclaiming that you are a Shi’ite.’

When even this is not enough to sway his friend, the
forlorn Perpetual Refugee retreats to ponder the
phenomenon in solitude.

‘This was what freaked me out,’ he concludes. ‘An
educated man… my friend… openly gay… supporting
Nasrallah. All because they belong to the same sect.
Nothing else.’

Clearly, sectarian affiliation is still a powerful
political influence in Lebanon. An explosion of blogs
in Lebanese cyberspace, however, is churning out
evidence that politics and sectarianism are no longer
inextricably tied.

Messages on lebforces.org, an on-line forum dedicated
to the Lebanese Forces (the Christian militia headed
by Samir Geagea), attest to the fact that LF has
supporters and even members from all religious
backgrounds. A supporter of the Future Party who is a
frequent visitor to the site notes that his party,
too, although predominantly Sunni, boasts Shi’ite,
Christian and Druse members.

In general, lebforces.org is rife with chatter that
most outside Lebanon would be shocked to discover. A
members’ poll shows that 63 percent believe Israel can
defeat Hizbullah, forum members openly debate whether
Lebanon is headed for ‘Iraqization’ and Sunni visitors
explain why their community has swung firmly into the
March 14 camp (named for the launch of the so-called
Cedar Revolution against Syrian occupation).

It is by no means alone. Increasingly, sites such as
yalibnan.com, march14forces.org, beirutspring.com,
lebanon- today.com, lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com and
dozens more are joining the political fray.
Significantly – whether it attests to the degree of
the Lebanese people’s anger at the Damascus regime, or
to the fact that Assad’s intelligence agents no longer
terrorize Lebanon – almost all these sites opened
after the Hariri assassination in 2005.

It is difficult to sum up the sentiments of these
bloggers – or, indeed, the current state of Lebanon –
more concisely than Rami Khoury, a regular contributor
to the Daily Star, did just a few months ago:
‘Culpability and innocence are not the real issue at
hand today,’ he wrote. ‘Rather, it is the ideological
battle for the control of Lebanon’s soul and political
system – pitting Arabism and Islamism, on the one
hand, against a liberal, Western- oriented
cosmopolitanism on the other.’

For the moment, that battle is being waged at Nahr el-
Bared. Saniora’s government is allowing Palestinian
representatives to try to mediate a peaceful solution
with Fatah al-Islam, although it is clear that there
is no guarantee of such efforts bearing fruit. After
all, each side is smitten with the idea of emerging
victorious in a blaze of glory.

Defense Minister Elias Murr said last Friday that he
was ‘leaving room for political negotiations’ – that
is, as long as they lead to the surrender of the
gunmen. ‘If the political negotiations fail, I leave
it to the military command to do what is necessary,’
he said ominously.

In a video shown on Al-Jazeera television last week,
Absi declared, ‘We wish to die for the sake of God!’
That, many Lebanese have been quick to respond, can be
arranged. And Nasrallah can join them too, if he so
chooses.

(BOX #1) How concerned should we be?

‘Israelis,’ says Tony Badran, ‘think that Syria’s
withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 strengthened
Hizbullah. They’re so wrong.’

Hizbullah, explains the research fellow for the
Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon and Syria,
rose to prominence in large part through Syrian
intervention. After first opposing Hizbullah in its
fight with the Syrian-backed Amal, Damascus took up
the cause of the victorious Shi’ite militia and helped
it solidify its status as a significant threat to the
Lebanese government.

Syria, Badran says, also imposed a comprehensive
socio-political culture, based on intimidation, to
support the Party of God. ‘This,’ he points out, ‘is
now no more.’

It was not that the vacuum created by the withdrawal
of the Syrian army two years ago emboldened Hizbullah
into instigating last summer’s war with Israel, Badran
believes. Rather, the pullout forced it to concoct a
means through which it could maintain its role as a
domestic challenger to the elected government.

‘The war was more for domestic issues than anything
else,’ he says. ‘[Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan]
Nasrallah figured the Israeli response would be as it
had been before – they would hit a few bunkers, and
then the whole thing would be over in two days. He’d
have a few Israeli soldiers in his hands and a
military victory with which to embarrass [Prime
Minister Fuad] Saniora’s government. It would have
been tremendous. But he took a huge beating.’

Hizbullah’s defeat last summer – and, to be sure, like
most Lebanese who don’t pay fealty to Nasrallah,
Badran characterizes Hizbullah’s performance as an
unequivocal failure – combined with its inability thus
far to topple Saniora’s coalition and Syria’s distress
over the Rafik Hariri tribunal put Hizbullah in a
difficult situation, he believes.

Could Nasrallah again try an attack on Israel to save
his standing at home?

‘The possibility exists in theory,’ Badran says. ‘I
don’t think, however, that they’re in a position to
create that kind of a mess for themselves – not
domestically, not internationally and not militarily.
They may have brought in more Katyushas, but who the
hell cares? It’s not really a strategic weapon. The
bunkers south of the Litani River have all been
compromised. Also, they lost 600-700 fighters in whom
they had invested six-seven years of training. How are
they going to bring them back?’

No, says Badran, ‘despite Nasrallah’s bluster, they’re
not in a position to do anything.’ This is why it
could be in Israel’s best interests to wait things
out, to see whether Lebanon’s coalition of anti-Syrian
and, increasingly, anti-Hizbullah forces can solidify
its control of the country. And, to let the fallout of
the Hariri tribunal expose the true colors of both
Hizbullah and Syria’s newly reelected dictator.

‘You Israelis are busy discussing whether [Bashar]
Assad’s intentions are sincere,’ Badran continues.
‘The answer is that, yes, he really does want to talk.
But why? Assad only intends to use talks with Israel
to relieve pressure from the US.

‘Now, since the Palestinian situation is so
pathetically horrible, talking with Syria might seem
attractive,’ he says. ‘But the chance of fruitfulness
in talks with Syria is zero. So this is a case where
doing something with Syria is actually worse than
doing nothing.’

(BOX #2) Q&A with a Beirut blogger

Jeha was suspicious. So very suspicious. In Lebanon,
speaking with an Israeli can be the kiss of death. Why
should he trust me?

Most Lebanese I tried to reach refused any contact
with an Israeli. Jeha wouldn’t risk being overheard
talking with me on the phone, but the outspoken
blogger from Beirut did agree to an on-line chat.
There, the ‘rabidly secular’ engineer – Jeha is his
cyberspace nom de plume – opened up.

Of all the armed groups in Lebanon, what makes Fatah
al-Islam so unpopular?

Most Lebanese are appalled that the terrorists
attacked the army, and the cowardly way in which they
ambushed soldiers. Most are really tired of being the
cesspool of the Middle East and of having Syria dump
its garbage on us.

The clincher, though, [regarding Fatah al-Islam] was
the soldiers’ assassinations. The fact that they
struck first against troops on leave is interpreted by
most as betrayal. Few would admit this to Israelis,
but such betrayal is considered a deadly sin in
Lebanon.

How has this issue affected the political crisis?

I think it has exacerbated it, by driving a wedge
between [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah and
[his ally Christian leader Michel] Aoun. And I think
Nasrallah miscalculated again [by opposing a military
incursion into the camp].

But Hizbullah may have an ulterior motive here; once
the taboo about Palestinian weapons is broken, what’s
to keep the government from addressing Hizbullah’s
weapons? There is a strong element of
self-preservation here.

In any case, if the army does not capture or kill
those bastards [Fatah al-Islam], we’re in for far more
trouble. Herein lies another problem, though: How do
we define victory? How do we know we got them all, if
they surrendered or got killed? We have no commissions
like you guys have, and many questions will remain
unanswered.

You’re referring to Israel’s commission of inquiry
into last summer’s war?

I think skepticism is an advantage Jews have. In
Lebanon, the Christians are less ‘questioning,’ and
the Muslims are too respectful of religious texts. In
any case, here you cannot question Nasrallah or ‘God’s
victory.’ He painted it in terms of religion, but that
only invited many other communities to question his
holiness. And many Shi’ites are concerned about the
path he is leading Lebanon down.

So not only Christians are wary of Nasrallah?

It is far more than mere wariness. There is an element
of outright hatred, since he chose allegiance to
Syria. Sunnis are really angry at this, and he
underestimates the anger. To most Sunnis, Nasrallah
has projected a very dark image over time… There was
already this rivalry, but now, it has taken on a
sinister aspect.

What have the anti-Syria (and anti-Hizbullah)
demonstrations in Beirut been like?

Well, I’ve been to all of them, and they were the
greatest fun I’ve had, ever. We really felt like a
nation back then, all the while knowing that this
could not last for ever… most of us had no
illusions, but we liked the ‘high.’ And heck… it
felt good to be alive.

There was plenty of good humor, too. Aside from
everyone shouting ‘We all want Syria out!’ we also had
a lot of signs saying things like ‘No swimming,’ in a
dig to [Lebanese President Emile] Lahoud’s hobby… we
also made fun of [pro-Syrian leaders’] speech
impediments.

Increasingly, people are mocking Nasrallah as well. It
started out ‘nice,’ but it has gotten uglier. [Satires
can be found on youtube.]

It seems, though, that much of the momentum from the
Cedar Revolution has been lost. Where do you see that
movement headed, and how has the fighting in Nahr
el-Bared affected it?

Let me put it this way: We had a 15-year civil war. We
had warlords who took over the reins of power and a
political class which is beyond contempt. Syrians (and
Israelis, to some extent) have tried to gobble us up,
but they could not digest us. It took us another 15
years or so to get out, from the other side of the
digestive tract, and it is no wonder that we do not
smell like roses!

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