Going in?

BEIRUT — In my previous post, I mentioned that Maj. Gen Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces told me, he “thinks the army will have to go in” to Nahr el-Bared to uproot the militants of Fatah al-Islam.
“They are very dangerous,” he told me in his plush office. “We have no choice, we have to combat them.”
Perhaps I underplayed his comments, because if he’s right, “going in” would be a huge development. The Palestinians have run their own security in the 12 camps under a 1969 agreement brokered by the Arab League. Now, that agreement was allegedly revoked in 1987 by the Lebanese Parliament, but there’s still at least a tacit agreement that the Palestinians mind their own store.
That’s not really a viable security option anymore, as we can see just north of Tripoli.
Now, what was Rifi trying to say? Was he merely repeating the phrase of my question — “Will the army have to go in?” — because his english isn’t so good, as he protested a couple of times? (He spoke well enough to conduct an interview, mind you.) Was he trying to emphasize the point that there are elements in the government that are rarin’ to go get those Fatah al-Islam guys while others, perhaps Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, are willing to take a slower approach?
Or was he trying, in his own locution, to emphasize the importance for Lebanon of winning this battle? Because this is make or break time for Lebanon as a sovereign state.
If the army fails at this task of defeating Fatah al-Islam — and I’m not talking about some mealy-mouthed “arrangement” where a few of the militants are hauled in — it will undermine the legitimacy of the army as a state institution. And that will very much play right into Hezbollah’s hands.
See, Hezbollah has often said it is needed as an armed resistance because the army is too weak to stand up to Israel. (True.) But the Shi’ite group won’t put itself under the command of the army because to do so would mean that any attack it launched on Israel such as, say, capturing and killing Israeli troops, would mean _Lebanon_ was the aggressor and as such would bring down the wrath of the Israeli military on _Lebanon._
Of course, this is exactly what happened last summer, but let’s not quibble. In Lebanese politics, there are apparently no limits on hypocrisy.
If the army fails and is seen as weak or illegitimate, Hezbollah has a strong argument for saying it must keep its arms for the defense of Lebanon. Now, one of the definitions of sovereignty is the “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_the_legitimate_use_of_physical_force, or violence. Since Lebanon’s government and weak army would be unable to claim that following a loss at the hands of Fatah al-Islam, there would be no real sovereignty here. Hezbollah 1, Lebanon 0.
One can argue whether a sovereign Lebanon is a good or bad thing in the grand scheme of things, an argument I can’t address on this humble blog, although I favor the former. But it’s vitally important to the Lebanese government.
It’s so important that some elements of the government, including Rifi’s former boss, cabinet member Ahmad Fatfat, “are calling for storming the gates of Nahr el-Bared.”:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070526.LEBANON26/TPStory/International
There is some buzz that this will be resolved in 48 hours. That may be true, or it might not be. A lot can happen in this small country in that time.
By the way, the donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

About that showdown…

BEIRUT — Lebanon is truly a strange — yet tasty — place. Two hours ago, I had Lebanese soldiers pointing guns at me over a traffic snafu (my driving or theirs, I’m not sure which and I’ll bet neither do they) and now I’m at Julia’s enjoying a righteous grilled chicken salad with a subtle basil vinaigrette.
But I wonder if “my predictions of a looming showdown”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/showdown_looming.php were premature. It’s true that hundreds of Lebanese troops are ringing the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared, where “hundreds” of Fatah al-Islam fighters are holed up — along with about 18,000 Palestinian civilians. And also it’s true that the U.S. and other Arab countries have sped up the delivery of military aid to Lebanon: more ammo, night vision goggles and the like. And it’s true that Defense Minister Elias Murr has said that death or surrender are the only options for the fighters. Furthermore, the chief of the Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi told me not 30 minutes ago that he thought the army would have to go in.
But that rascally sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has thrown a spanner in the works, it seems. Yesterday was Liberation Day, a national holiday commemorating the retreat of the Israelis from southern Lebanon in 2000. Nasrallah took the opportunity to warn against going into the camps, saying an assault by the army was “a red line” and that the opposition wanted no part of it.
“The Nahr al-Bared camp and Palestinian civilians are a red line,” Nasrallah said, according to Al-Nahar. “We will not accept or provide cover or be partners in this.”
“Does it concern us that we start a conflict with Al Qaeda in Lebanon and consequently attract members and fighters of Al Qaeda from all over the world to Lebanon to conduct their battle with the Lebanese army and the rest of the Lebanese?” he added.
Fair enough, I guess. But more to the point, his address and his opposition to a military solution will reverberate throughout the army, about half of which is Shi’a. A sharp producer I know up north painted an alternate scenario than the _al-Götterdämmerung_ scenario presently being awaited.
Nasrallah’s address stopped the state in its tracks, said the producer, because of his influence among Shi’a. Going into the camp now, with half the army Shi’a, risks splitting the army while at the same time risking a general uprising among the 350,000 to 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. Without a unified army, there can be no unified Lebanon. The remnants of the military would collapse into militias. And that’s the end of the ball game. Civil War 2.0. Talk about an ’80s revival! (Only without the music, hair or Molly Ringwald.)
What’s more likely, he said, is that in the coming days or, more likely, weeks, a number of Fatah al-Islam members will be “caught” trying to “escape” the camp. The Army will announce it has caught the “criminals” who started this whole thing with their attack on army positions last weekend. Shaker al-Abssi, the leader of Fatah al-Islam, will evade capture.
And the rest? Well, it will turn out that Fatah al-Islam wasn’t quite as big an organization as people thought it was.
The army would look like it accomplished something, massive bloodshed would be avoided (a good thing) and, like most issues in Lebanon, this whole ugly episode would be suspended but not resolved.
Does it solve the problem? No, but looking the other way and seeing what they want to is a Lebanese tradition.
Time will tell if the producer or the doomsayers are right.
By the way, the donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

Strange doings in Tripoli

TRIPOLI — What the heck is going on up here? That seems to be the big question at the moment. Last night around 9 p.m., fighting started up again between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam. This prompted speculation that the push against the jihadi group had come, and I raced back up to Tripoli from my spot of being stuck in a checkpoint just outside Beirut. (The capital is locked down after three bombs this week, so security is tight.)
Atop the building where the television crews have set up, the owner of the building — a tightly wound guy in the best of times — carried around a Kalashnikov and threatened to shoot anyone who turned on their television lights.
In the darkness, you couldn’t see who was who, and a rumor — goosed, apparently by Lebanese military intelligence — swept through the gang that Fatah al-Islam had sent suicide bombers throughout the nearby area and one might be on the roof. A quick evacuation ensued.
This morning it’s quiet again. The fighting stopped around 6 a.m., and we’re back to waiting for something to happen.
My feeling is that Fuad Siniora’s government is a bit confused, as the Palestinian issue is a tricky one. The status of Palestinians in Lebanon is not a purely internal affair, but one belonging to the Arab League thanks to a 1969 agreement that keeps Lebanese authority out of the 12 camps scattered around the country. Further complicating matters, the camp isn’t empty. There has been a more or less steady trickle of refugees getting out of the camps, either on foot or in cars, but there are still about 18,000 civilians in the camp, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The humanitarian situation is growing worse by the hour inside the camp, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and scattered demonstrations in other camps have already occurred. More casualties among civilians is going to inflame the Palestinians in Lebanon — an already seething people who make up about 10 percent of Lebanon’s population. Sultan Abu Aynan, the head of Lebanon’s branch of Fatah — the main group in the PLO — has warned of a general uprising among the Palestinians could occur. Other Arab governments have also expressed concern over the casualties (even while they pledge a rush shipment of weapons to the Lebanese army.)
So a long siege is untenable to the Palestinians and Arab governments around the region. But leaving Fatah al-Islam alone is equally untenable to the Lebanese government. Going into the camp, no mater how carefully, will result in horrific casualties among both the Palestinians and the Lebanese army, perhaps the only state institution almost widely admired by all of Lebanon’s quarreling confessional groups. Further complicating matters, members of the opposition, led by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, camped out in downtown since Dec. 1, have started making political hay out of this situation by accusing the U.S.-backed government of incompetence and dithering — charges which aren’t entirely untrue.
I mention the various backers because solving the problem of Fatah al-Islam has implications far beyond the borders of Lebanon. While mass casualties on the army’s side would be bad, in Lebanon, the fear of the “other” overrides all. It’s highly unlikely Siniora’s political allies in the Christian and Druze camps would desert him no matter how bad a military assault might be.
(On a side note, Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, urged his supporters — of which there are many in this conservative Sunni area — to help the army. Allegedly, some have taken that to heart because I’ve heard stories from Palestinians who say Future Movement followers are shooting into the camp at anything that moves. How do they know the bullets are from Future Movement supporters? Who knows, but the truth is almost irrelevant in this case; the suspicions indicate the depth of distrust between Palestinians and local residents up here.)
So while army casualties would be bad, large numbers of dead among the Palestinians would be worse. Arab governments in the region such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf sheikhdoms would be seen by their own restive populations as helping a government massacre Palestinians — and it would be an _Arab_ government doing it. Talk about betrayal! (Al Jazeera, by far the most popular news channel throughout the Middle East, “is allegedly pushing this narrative”:http://beirutspring.com/blog/2007/05/23/why-many-lebanese-are-shunning-aljazeera/, although I can’t verify this just yet.) So Cairo, Amman and others are watching this situation very closely.
This would be bad for Siniora because he relies not only on support from the West, but from friendly Arab governments who want to check the Iranian-Syrian axis. Weakening Siniora means strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon’s zero-sum politics, which would further strengthening Syria, right when it’s facing a possible United Nations Security Council resolution that would set up the Hariri tribunal under Chapter 7.
The common thread in all of this is Syria. Fatah al-Islam is suspected of being a Syrian marionette and Hezbollah is a Syrian ally. With threats from the north, south and east, the little prime-minister-that-could is rapidly running out of room to maneuver.

Scene from the North

Here’s the story I filed for the San Francisco Chronicle last night,giving you a sense of the scene up around the Nahr el-Bared camp. It’s grim:

Across the street, black smog billowed over the camp while half a dozen buildings blazed. Sniper fire crackled in the air as the army pounded the camp with 120mm mortar and tank shells. Fatah al-Islam militants responded with rocket propelled grenade launchers and machine-gun fire.
Dense orange groves surrounding the camp were scorched from explosions while the army seemed to methodically lob shells on a specific sector of the camp, setting a number of buildings on fire before moving on.
Conditions in the camp — a miserable warren of alleyways and cinderblock homes housing between 30,000 and 40,000 people – are grim. A source at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in New York said it was impossible for camp medical workers to get to the dead and wounded. Water and electricty have been cut off and about 50 foreigners — many of the Westerners — are hunkered down as their embassies work to get a cease fire in place so they can be evacuated.

I’m heading up in a couple of hours. Word is a UN convoy is going to try to get into the camp.

More Violence and an update on Fatah al-Islam

BEIRUT — Jesus. Another car bomb just went off a few minutes ago in upscale Verdun, an upscale Muslim neighborhood full of tony shops. I can’t tell yet, but there appear to be much more damage and casualties than last night’s car bomb in Achrafiyeh. The cars are still burning as I type. The neighborhood is in chaos as soldiers and rescue workers try to keep order and reach the wounded amid the flames. Updates as I can get them.
*UPDATE 1:* Future TV, affiliated with the Hariri family, says four people have been injured in the bomb.
I’d also like to write a little history on Fatah al-Islam. As the Lebanese Army fights a pitched battle with the Palestinian militant group, the question for many in Beirut — especially those who support the current government — is what role Syria may be playing in the current drama to the north. 
The timing, according to some political observers, is telling coming as it does on the heels of the introduction of a draft resolution at the United Nations Security Council to set up an international tribunal that would try suspects in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria, which opposes the tribunal, could have pulled the strings on Fatah al-Islam, a group that government supporters say heeds its masters in Damascus.
National police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said yesterday that Damascus was behind Fatah al-Islam’s recent surge, with only a bit of al Qaeda ideology thrown in. 
“Perhaps there are some deluded people among them but they are not al Qaida,” Rifi said. “This is imitation al Qaida, a ‘Made in Syria’ one.”
Muhammad Shatah, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Fuad Siniora — whose government is locked in a power struggle with opposition groups that support Syria — also said Syria was trying to derail the tribunal, which is widely expected in to implicate senior Syrian officials in the Hariri killing, by sowing discord in Lebanon. The widely held belief among government members is that the leader of Fatah al-Islam, Shaker al-Abssi, is a member of the Syrian _mukhabarrat_ and was sent here last year to stir up trouble after making a deal for an early release from a Syrian prison. 
But one longtime observer of the Palestinian camps and Islamist movements doesn’t see Syria’s direct involvement. Kassem Kassir, a journalist for the pro-government newspaper al Mustaqbal who is an expert on these groups and has interviewed members of the group in Nahr el-Bared, said Fatah al-Islam, and its leader Shaker al-Abssi are supported by Salafist groups in the Gulf, Iraq and Jordan that share al Qaida’s ideology more than they are by Syria. Al-Abssi’s link to Syria comes from the long history of attempts by Syria to use the Palestinians for its own purposes against Israel. 
Al Abssi used to be a member of the main Palestinian faction, Fatah, founded by former PLO chairman Yassir Arafat. He later joined Fatah al-Intifada, a fake group set up by Syria in an attempt to turn Palestinians’ national yearnings to Syria’s advantage. But with little support among the Palestinian population, which by and large stayed loyal to homegrown groups such as Fatah and Hamas, Fatah al-Intifada languished. Last year, in a bid to strike out on his own, Kassir said, Al Abssi split and formed Fatah al-Islam. 
It was possibly a natural split, he said, because Al Abssi is a Jordanian of Palestinian descent with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was killed last year. Today he gets money and men from Salafist groups in the Gulf, Iraq and Jordan who share his jihadist view of an Islamic caliphate stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. 
Kassir acknowledged that Fatah al-Islam appears to be very well armed and those weapons had to have come through Syria at some point, indicating some degree of cooperation, but Syria often allows groups other than its main ally Hezbollah to arm up. 
Hezbollah has constraints on what it can do, given its image as a Lebanese resistance with members of parliament, said Reva Bhalla, director of geopolitical analysis at Stratfor, a Houston-based security firm. It is reluctant to turn its guns on the government, given that it’s part of it and it still hope to be seen as a legitimate part of the Lebanese political process. Groups such as Fatah al-Islam have more flexibility. 
“Syria is funneling weapons and men to them, keeping them there (in Lebanon) and they’re a bargaining tactic against the United States,” which is currently talking with Syria’s main ally, Iran, over a possible détente in the Middle East, she said. Significantly, she added, Iran has signaled that it doesn’t oppose the Hariri tribunal, which is making Syria very nervous that its main ally might be hanging it out to dry. 
“Syria is watching very closely that it doesn’t get screwed in any deal,” and any support it may be giving to groups such as Fatah al-Islam is to remind the United States that it has chips it can still play.     
Regardless of how the battle with Fatah al-Islam plays out, there are other groups that Syria has more direct ties with, Kassir said, such as Jund al-Sham (Army of the Sham) and Osbat al-Ansar (the League of Partisans), which are based in other Palestinian camps in Lebanon. They all share a similar ideology and all benefit from Syria’s looking the other way as materiel crosses the border coming from and heading to Iraq. 
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. 

Bombing in Beirut Caps Day of Violence in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Lebanon was rocked by violence today with dozens killed in fighting in the country’s north and a car bomb in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut that killed one person and wounded up to a dozen.
“The day started with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070520/ap_on_re_mi_ea/lebanon_violence;_ylt=Aksp6EN.OKSYmUdJcZiKdcULewgF between the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian militant group, “Fatah al-Islam”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/05/20/africa/ME-GEN-Lebanon-Violence-Militants.php, which the Lebanese government says is backed by Syria and shares an ideology with al Qaida. At least 22 soldiers and 17 militants were killed in fighting that lasted through much of the day.
But by the time calm had been imposed up north, a car bomb shattered windows and collapsed a building in the east Beirut neighborhood of Acrafiyeh. Reports say a woman was killed and about a dozen wounded.
The bomb was placed in a car lot next to the popular ABC Achrafiyeh mall, and the timing of the blast — at 11:40 p.m. — suggested that its intent was to cause panic and fear among the crowd exiting the movie theaters at the mall.
“It was just to scare people,” said a man in the car lot who declined to be identified. “If they really wanted to cause damage, they would have put it in the parking garage.”
As the AP reports:

The bomb left a crater about 4 feet deep and 9 feet wide, and police said the explosives were estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The blast — heard across the city — gutted cars, set vehicles ablaze and shattered store and apartment windows.

Hamid and Claudine Saliba, both 39, live across the street from the parking lot where the car exploded.
“In Lebanon, you expect anything,” said Claudine, and after today’s violence up north, she and her husband were on guard. “But not in Achrafiyeh!”
They spoke from Hamid’s mother’s home, which is two doors down from their own, and the devastation in the house was near total. Graceful Ottoman windows jambs were ripped from the walls and heavy doors torn from their hinges. Luckily for Hamid, his mother had left the house on vacation two days previously, so there were no injuries.
This is the latest in a string of car bombs that many in Lebanon suspect is aimed at destabilizing the country so that Syria can re-impose its hegemony it enjoyed for 29 years.
Initially welcomed as protectors during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, Syrian maintained an iron control over Lebanon after the war ended, effectively occupying it from 1990-2005, when it withdrew its troops. The withdrawal was forced upon Damascus following massive popular protests, which the Lebanese call the “independence uprising,” in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many in Lebanon blame Syria for that killing and the waves of violence that have followed.
Lebanon has been on a knife’s edge since December of last year when Hezbollah and its allies, who support Syria, pulled out of the government in protest over legislation forming an international tribunal that would handle the Hariri case. Syria and its supporters vehemently oppose the tribunal, forcing the Lebanese government to petition the United Nations to impose the tribunal under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning it does not require Lebanese parliamentary approval. The tribunal is widely expected to indict high-level members of the Syrian regime, including the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Tonight’s bombing — which may or may not be tied to the fighting in the north — could be seen as a message that Syria’s agents in Lebanon are prepared to unleash more violence if the tribunal is imposed on Lebanon.

Jumblatt shoots his mouth off

BEIRUT — Well, this is just great. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said that reconciliation with Hezbollah was “impossible” because the Shi’ite militant group wants to replace the current pluralist state and society of Lebanon.
This is bunk. I have my criticisms of Hezbollah, but they don’t want to take over the whole country. For one, they don’t want the responsibility. They want to be a resistance movement fighting the Israelis; they don’t want to be in charge of filling potholes in Tariq el-Jdeide. They want enough power within the current system to guarantee the south remains theirs, so they can move freely in and out of it and keep their weapons, which is the real base of their power. Does anyone think Iran and Syria would continue to finance them if they weren’t such an effective tool against Israel? If Hezbollah had no weapons, then they have no money. If they have no money, they have no ability to support their social services, which are a strong draw to Lebanon’s poorer Shi’ite population. Without that loyalty, they’re nothing — and Hezbollah knows it. As Hezbollah sees it, they _have_ to protect their weapons if they want to remain politically viable.
But back to Jumblatt (or “Jumbo” as he’s affectionately know to local journalists). He’s long had a reputation as a dial-a-quote politician/warlord, but he represents one of the smallest communities in Lebanon. (Druze make up maybe 5 percent of the population.)
What’s dangerous about his comments, however, is that he’s listened to by the rank and file of March 14, and his comments can harden attitudes to any kind of compromise — which is sorely needed these days. Hezbollah ain’t going away, and it has to be integrated into the Lebanese political system somehow — fully and nonviolently. Jumblatt’s comments make that more difficult.
At any rate, his comments came in the wake of the disturbing discovery of two caches of explosives and detonation fuses scattered around Beirut and the rest of the country. Perhaps someone was just trying to dump them, but it’s set the place on edge. Careless comments from political leaders are not the best way to calm the situation.