Saniora 224.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Since May 20, the Lebanese army has been involved in a severe confrontation with Fatah al-Islam, dozens of whose members are holed up in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli.
The government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, which enjoys backing regionally and internationally, is determined to force Fatah al-Islam to surrender and views this confrontation not just as a security challenge but mainly as an important test of strength.
The confrontation once again focuses attention on Lebanon's fragile stability, with implications for the regional system, including Israel.
The growing infiltration of al-Qaida elements
These elements are working to entrench their influence among Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese Sunnis by exploiting the weakness of the central government and the leadership of the Palestinian factions, and building on the existing infrastructure of extremist Sunni organizations.
They are not a natural part of the Lebanese environment and do not play according to accepted "Lebanese rules," which even powerful Lebanese organizations like Hizbullah take into account. Moreover, they see the Lebanese government as part of the American-Israeli "project" for the region and therefore as a legitimate target of jihad while striving to annihilate Israel.
In Israel, there is a longstanding recognition of the dangerous potential for infiltration of "Iraqi veterans" into Lebanon and intensification of their actions against Israel (which was realized at least once in the form of Katyusha fire in December 2005) or against UNIFIL.
They pose an equally serious threat to destabilize Lebanon by propagating radical Islamism among the Sunni population in a manner that might ignite the simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites (perhaps leading to replay of events in Iraq).
The problem of Palestinians in Lebanon
The latest confrontation also refocuses attention on the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are seen by Lebanese as a ticking bomb.
The weakened authority of the local Palestinian leadership (riven by ceaseless internecine conflicts), the sharp split in Palestinian politics and the lack of a strong Palestinian political center outside Lebanon all provide fertile ground for the infusion of more radical, militant elements, like Fatah al-Islam, which also might be spreading into Gaza, and even to the West Bank.
In this reality, the "right of return" may again become the subject of international debate, though from the Lebanese government's perspective it is the only solution to the problem of the Palestinians in Lebanon.
Can the Lebanese army enforce state sovereignty?
The Lebanese army bears most of the burden for carrying out the Saniora government's agenda with respect to implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, preventing the smuggling of weapons across the Syrian border, and confronting domestic terrorist threats.
In none of these missions has it acquitted itself with great distinction. The latest confrontation has again exposed the army's clumsiness and limited ability to function as an effective counterterror force.
Still, the way in which the army concludes this affair will be an important indicator of its deterrence and enforcement capabilities and a litmus test of its ability to meet a series of other challenges. Failure to deal vigorously with the threat of al-Qaida-type organizations will play into Hizbullah's hands; a show of army weakness will legitimize Hizbullah demands to act as the country's main defender.
In the midst of this maelstrom, Hizbullah prefers to adopt a neutral stance. It is undoubtedly concerned that the incident will end in a way that raises the stature of the Saniora government and the army and elicits more international backing for them; after all, the army may eventually be called on to disarm Hizbullah, so Hizbullah prefers that it remain nothing more than a hollow symbol of Lebanese unity.
These developments may also complicate its efforts to bring down the government and may generate a renewed debate about the disarming of all militias - first, the Palestinians' but then Hizbullah's.
However, matters are too complicated to permit acting only on the basis of "my enemy's enemy is my friend."
Hizbullah, which is trying to rebuff charges that it is a servant of foreign interests, does not want to be tied to an organization identified with al-Qaida.
On the contrary, the strengthening in Lebanon of global jihad elements, most of whom are anti-Shi'ite, constitutes a threat to Hizbullah as well, because their actions could suck Hizbullah into an all-out Sunni-Shi'ite war or provoke another round of fighting with Israel if they were to succeed in opening a terror front from Lebanon.
Thus, paradoxically, Hizbullah and the Saniora government find themselves in the same camp against Sunni radicalism as represented by Fatah al-Islam and other such organizations. Indeed, Syria is also part of this camp, since it, too, feels threatened by the activities of global jihadists in its territory.
Any escalation of their activities could push Hizbullah into a united front with the Saniora government, and that would force the two sides to reach some compromise in the ongoing political confrontation between them.
By contrast, it would be more difficult to bring Syria to play a constructive role - at least in of terms of more effective action to prevent infiltration into Lebanon - because Syria has no interest in helping to stabilize Lebanon.
Instead, Syria can only gain from the crisis in Lebanon, especially now that the United States, France and Britain have managed to pass a Security Council resolution establishing an international tribunal to judge those responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri (a measure that requires Lebanese ratification).
Syria will probably make any assistance to Lebanon conditional on elimination of the pressure on the Hariri issue.
Reducing the threat to turn Lebanon into a central base for al-Qaida elements depends not only on improving (with foreign help) the operational and intelligence capacities of Lebanese security agencies but also on the ability of the Saniora government, on one hand, and Hizbullah and Syria, on the other, to overcome their deep conflicts of interests in order to cooperate against the common threat of global jihad organizations.
The author is a a visiting researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.