Friday, May 25, 2007

Is there something sinister in the timing of the sudden surge of violence that erupted between the Lebanese army and an al Qaeda-affiliated group called Fatah Islam around the northern city of Tripoli?

What is Fatah Islam? Who supports, arms and funds its members? And why did they suddenly manifest themselves so violently at this time?

Regretfully, these are questions to which answers will probably never be found. Just more puzzles to be added to the never-ending Lebanese political saga.

Many Lebanese will cite the fact that the fighting shifts the focus from the pending international tribunal on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A coincidence? Perhaps, but nevertheless this crisis does nothing to help the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, already burdened by a serious schism between the country’s Sunni and Shi’ite communities, as well as a division among the Christian community.

The only good news, if one may be optimistic under such circumstances, is that Hezbollah has come out in support of the Lebanese army in its fight against the shadowy Islamist militia. And in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was quoted by the Syrian news agency SANA as saying: “We renounce Fatah Islam. Members of the group are wanted by the Syrian security services.”

The group, led by a Palestinian named Shaker al-Abssi, is believed to have around 200 well-trained and well-equipped fighters, most of them Palestinians. But it includes Lebanese, Syrians, Yemenis, Bangladeshis and others. Fatah Islam broke away from Fatah al-Intifada, which had earlier seceded from Yasser Arafat’s mainstream Fatah movement after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. When Arafat rebased in Tunis, the rebel faction headed to Damascus.

On first engaging the group in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, the Lebanese army was welcomed by the camp’s population, who, some reports say, were not too pleased by Islamist group imposing itself on the refugees. But the situation changed quickly when the Lebanese army met stiff resistance and began using tanks and heavy artillery against the group.

Casualties were high as the fighting escalated. Reports from northern Lebanon say Fatah Islam lost at least 20 fighters in one day while the Lebanese army lost about 30 soldiers. There are also an unknown number of dead and wounded civilians caught in the cross-fire. Some reports speak of “hundreds of dead.” Humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have not been able to enter the camp due to heavy fighting.

Fatah Islam is a relative newcomer to the Lebanese political scene. They were unheard of until last year. Some observers say the group was created along the model of al Qaeda. Some reports say Fatah Islam is most probably sponsored by Syria, though Syria denies having anything to do with the group.

But according to a Stratfor intelligence brief, “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, continues the report, is near enough to the Syrian border to allow easy transit between Syria and Lebanon. “Fatah Islam could not have used force to take control over the camp without strong backing from Syrian intelligence officers in the region,” says the Stratfor intelligence report.

This battle will test the resolve of the Lebanese army, which, for fear of fracturing along sectarian lines as was the case during the 1975 civil war, has so far managed to stay away from the quagmire that is Lebanese politics. The army — so far — has the overwhelming support of the population and enjoys the backing of the United States and the European Union — primarily France, Germany and Italy.

So who is this leader of the renegade Palestinian Fatah Islam? Shaker al-Abssi, 51, was born in Palestine, but his family eventually fled after Israel was established. Not much is known about him other than he is believed to have spent three years in a Syrian jail on terrorism charges.

Abssi admitted to collaborating with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. He and Zarqawi were sentenced to death in absentia by a Jordanian court for the murder of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat shot in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 2002.

According to intelligence officials cited by the New York Times, Abssi moved to Lebanon in November 2006, setting up his base of operations in the Nahar al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near the northern city of Tripoli.

Lebanese authorities blamed Fatah Islam for the bombing earlier this year of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Abssi later denied the allegations in an interview with the New York Times.

Stratfor deduces that, “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.”

In other words, current events in northern Lebanon are a natural extension of the war in Iraq. It should send a clear signal that unless that war is settled, the violence witnessed around Nahr al-Bared could spread and engulf other parts of the region.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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