Analysis: Why might Syria wish to sow chaos in Lebanon now?

More than meets the eye in Nahr al-Bared.

lebanon army 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
lebanon army 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Thirty eight people lost their lives on Sunday in fierce fighting between the Lebanese military and Sunni jihadist operatives near the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, close to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. This outbreak of violence represents the heaviest toll in intra-Lebanese violence since the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. The events in Nahr al-Bared cast light on a side of the Lebanese crisis which has until now been largely ignored by the international media. This is the emergence in recent months of an organization of armed Sunni Islamist operatives in the largely-Sunni north of the country. So far, much of the coverage has suggested that the group in question, known as Fatah al-Islam, may be linked to the al-Qaida network. Nevertheless, informed opinion suggests caution before drawing the simple conclusion that Fatah al-Islam is merely Osama bin-Laden's latest local franchise. Fatah al-Islam is a breakaway of a Syrian-backed Palestinian organization called Fatah-intifada, which itself split from the mainstream Palestinian Fatah group in 1983. Fatah-intifada has little presence outside of the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria, and is widely regarded as a tool of the Syrian regime with little popular support. The group, led by a Palestinian called Shakir al-Abssi, surfaced in the Nahr al-Bared camp last November and is thought to contain around 100 fighters from the camp. The group includes Sunni Islamists of a variety of nationalities, about half of whom are drawn from the Sunni Lebanese community. Apart from Palestinians, there are also said to be Syrian and Saudi citizens among its ranks. While Syrian officials have been keen from the outset to describe al-Abssi and his group as operating "in favor of al-Qaida," Lebanese authorities suspect that the group may in fact be a client of the Syrian authorities themselves, established to act as an instrument of policy in Lebanon, fomenting disorder. The Assad regime has a long history of utilizing terrorist and paramilitary groups for such a purpose. Fatah-intifada itself was used by Hafez Assad in a power struggle with Yassir Arafat in the Lebanon refugee camps between 1985-88. The regime is known also to have engaged operatives of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to carry out assassinations in Lebanon during the civil war period. Suspicions regarding Fatah al-Islam center on the fact that Shakir al-Abssi was sentenced in 2003 to three years in prison in Syria after being convicted of plotting attacks inside the country. This was an unusually lenient sentence. By comparison, for example, Syrians suspected of involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood are routinely given 12-year terms. Al-Abssi, after his release, turned up among pro-Syrian Fatah-intifada circles in Nahr al-Bared and shortly afterward emerged as the leader of the new group, Fatah al-Islam. These facts have led General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (FSI), to conclude that "this is a Syrian creation to sow chaos." Which raises the question, why might the Syrians wish to sow chaos in Lebanon, and why now? A draft resolution for the unilateral establishment of an international tribunal on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was circulated in the UN Security Council by the US, France and Britain last week. It is known that the Syrian regime is determined to prevent this tribunal at all costs, since it is believed that senior Syrian officials may be found to have been involved in the Hariri killing. Could it be that the regime in Damascus might see an escalation of tension in Lebanon as currently helpful - as a tacit reminder to the international community of what Damascus is capable of when put in a corner? This is the view of senior officials in Lebanese government, and is in keeping with earlier practices of the Damascus regime. The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs center, IDC Herzliya.