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In fighting that Reuters is calling "the worst in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war," 79 people have been killed: 34 Lebanese soldiers, 27 jihadists and 18 civilians. It started 12 days ago, when Islamists attacked Lebanese forces stationed near the Palestinian-populated town of Nahr el-Bared.
The group taking responsibility is Fatah al-Islam, which Lebanese authorities say includes Islamists from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. Though the group is widely labeled as "al-Qaida-linked," Lebanese journalist Michael Young points the finger elsewhere. While "specific militants" might be from al-Qaida, "the top leadership is most likely acting today on behalf of the Syrian security services, which have allowed the group access to Lebanon through Syria's borders," he writes.
The decision to launch the attacks on the Lebanese army was "very clearly a Syrian effort to show both Lebanon and the international community that a Chapter VII tribunal [directed at Syria on the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri] would have nefarious consequences," he goes on. Syria's foreign minister and its UN ambassador have confirmed this by overtly linking stability in Lebanon to the tribunal.
It would be useful to keep this whole episode in mind as the dilemma of how to contend with rogue regimes, particularly Iran and Syria, rises on the agenda. Western leaders are surely concerned about Iran's bid for nuclear weapons, yet are constantly weighing what will happen if Iran is seriously confronted.
Looming in the background is the threat that Iran and Syria will mobilize the entire jihadi axis, including al-Qaida, Hizbullah, Hamas, Fatah al-Islam and groups yet to be named or invented in a rash of attacks on the West. Iran and Syria are certainly working to encourage such fears. The July 12, 2006 Hizbullah attack that started the Second Lebanon War, launched just before a G-8 summit that was considering sanctions on Iran, was most likely such an effort. And so again is the latest fire started by Syria, and probably Iran, in Lebanon.
The lesson that Iran and Syria are trying to convey with such intimidation tactics is the same as what these countries say more or less directly when "engaged" by American or European diplomats: leave us alone and you will enjoy greater stability; confront us and we will fight back with terrorism and mayhem. But is this the lesson that the West should internalize and act upon?
A better lesson might be the one buried in the US 9/11 Commission Report - that massive terror attacks, though they may be carried out by non-state actors, need the "time" and "space" that state sponsorship and sanctuary can provide. The straightforward pattern is that conflicts, like the new episode in Lebanon, "burst out" from proxy forces, but the hands of the state sponsors, Iran and Syria, are close behind.
Global jihadist terrorism, accordingly, can and must be fought by governments against the terrorist groups directly, but must ultimately be understood as a weapon in the hands of states. Though confronting these states may not be sufficient to stop such terrorism, it is certainly futile to fight terrorism while allowing state sponsors to escape responsibility and punishment.
This is exactly why the Hariri tribunal is not only important, but a concept that should be expanded to include not only assassinations, but support for terrorism generally. Iran, for example, is banned both by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on Lebanon, and by a subsequent Chapter VII resolution imposing sanctions related to its nuclear program, from arming Hizbullah. Yet there is no comprehensive UN investigatory and enforcement mechanism that would hold Iran and Syria responsible for their rampant support for terrorism in Iraq and Lebanon, and against Israel.
The failure to systematically hold states accountable for terrorism is the fundamental weakness of the international response to the Islamofascist threat since 9/11. Until this changes, new conflicts, like the current one in northern Lebanon, will continue to "burst out."
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