May 22, 2007

Potential for a new civil war in Lebanon?

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Lt. Col. Rick Francona analyzes the current Lebanese-Palestinian conflict
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

For two days now, Lebanese army troops have been shelling the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli. The government of Fouad Siniora claims that an al-Qaida-inspired group calling itself Fatah al-Islam is holed up inside the camp; elements of the Lebanese Army have been dispatched to take on the group.

Fatah al-Islam is a fundamentalist Muslim breakaway faction of a pro-Syrian group, declaring itself operational in November 2006. Its direct ties to al-Qaida are tenuous at best; the leader of Fatah al-Islam is linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed last year. Both Fatah al-Islam leader Shakir al-Abbsi and al-Zarqawi were convicted for the 2002 murder of American diplomat in Jordan.

A Syrian connection?
The Lebanese government claims the group has ties to Syrian intelligence. If true, this likely means ties to Syrian military intelligence, long charged with managing Syrian interests in Lebanon. American counterterrorism analysts are not sure of this connection. Of course, Syria denies any connection.

Assuming a Syrian connection, why would Syria want to provoke a fight between the Lebanese Army and a Palestinian Islamist group in northern Lebanon?

Let’s look at Syria’s current situation. A United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri implicated Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials. President Siniora has come under increasing Syrian pressure not to approve a tribunal to try the accused perpetrators. Following Syria’s withdrawal of its military force and claimed withdrawal of intelligence officers from Lebanon, there have been a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian political leaders. The Fatah al-Islam group was implicated in one of these attacks earlier this year.

Syria wants to re-establish its previous dominant position in Lebanon. It has always regarded Lebanon as in its sphere of influence and has sought to control events in the country. Increased violence may result in the Lebanese recalling the days of pax Syriana when thousands of Syrian troops kept the peace. A deteriorating situation in Lebanon plays into Syrian interests.

Potential for a civil war?
The Siniora government is under additional pressure from three of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian political parties. Hezbollah, Amal (both Shia groups) and Christian Free Patriotic Movement oppose any tribunal over the al-Hariri assassination. Thus far, they have been successful, to the point that the United States and the United Kingdom are about to introduce a United Nations resolution establishing the tribunal without Lebanese approval. The three parties are also demanding the formation of a new “national unity” government, one that gives them more participation. The power struggle in Beirut has effectively crippled the government.

It is imperative that the Siniora government contain this violence quickly and decisively. They must prevent the escalation of the fighting and prevent the spread of this confrontation in the north to the rest of the country. Up to this point, the Lebanese Army has suffered unusually high casualties. The Fatah al-Islam fighters are well-equipped and willing to die for their cause. The Lebanese Army may be willing to fight for the country, but they are not as committed as the fighters in the camp. That said, President Siniora must commit the military resources to end this now. Although there are reports of a cease-fire, if this group is not disarmed, it will only be a matter of time before it resurfaces.

Should Hezbollah, the only remaining armed militia in Lebanon, decide to take advantage of this situation and present an armed threat to the Lebanese government, the Lebanese Army will be hard pressed to mount an effective defense of the country.

As of now, the situation is between the Lebanese and a Palestinian group (albeit with some foreign fighters). Most of the animosity in the north is Lebanese versus Palestinians –- many Lebanese blame the massive influx of Palestinians after the Palestine Liberation Organization’s failed coup attempt in Jordan in 1970 as the basis for most of the internal problems in the country. These feelings have resurfaced during this confrontation.

There does not seem to be any interest in expanding the fight into a Lebanese on Lebanese civil war. The government has to keep it that way.

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