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. Badran says Fatah al-Islam is much more closely tied to Syrian President Bashar Assad than to Osama bin Laden.
Absi was convicted in absentia by a Jordanian security court for participating in the murder of an American diplomat in Amman in 2002. At the time of his conviction, Absi was living in Syria. "Not only did Syria not extradite him," Badran says, "it only jailed him for three years. Then, all of a sudden, he appeared in Lebanon."
As for the group Fatah al-Islam, Badran notes that it is a break-off from Fatah al-Intifada, "which is purely Syrian."
"Where do you think they are getting their weapons from?" he asks. "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. n
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