Coverage of the Conflict

BEIRUT — Well, the situation up north has settled into a standoff, despite a bout of gunfire on Monday. The various Palestinian factions are trying to negotiate an end to this crisis, and the Lebanese government has given them time to get the job done. But while several politicians, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have said the military option is off the table, we may very well see more violence before this is over. Lebanon simply can’t allow these guys to walk away, as I’ve mentioned before.
The group continues to refuse to hand over any of its fighters. “This is impossible,” said Fatah al-Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha via telephone from inside Nahr el-Bared.
I’ll be heading back up, probably Tuesday, to monitor the situation. In the meantime, here are some of the stories I filed over the last week:
* Lebanon, Syria Point Fingers in Recent Violence (Washington Times)
* Lebanese army assault cheered, but raises fears (San Francisco Chronicle)
* Bodies piling up in assault on camp (San Francisco Chronicle)
Another one on the foreign fighters in Fatah al-Islam is due out tomorrow morning.
*UPDATE 5/30/07 2:13:53 AM:* And here it is! Sorry for the delay. Been busy here taking care of daily life that got put on hold while the North caught fire. Right now, things are more or less quiet, with the occasional exchange of fire. We’ll see how long it holds.

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.

Showdown Looming

JUST OUTSIDE NAHR EL-BARED REFUGEE CAMP — Just at the edge of this now devastated refugee camp, the Lebanese Army is showing signs of preparing for a showdown with the “Fatah al-Islam jihadist group”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2007/05/more_violence_and_an_update_on.php.
Trucks full of ammunition have been seen rumbling north on the road from Tripoli toward the camp. Many of the Palestinian refugees who are able to leave have left, leaving fewer civilian targets to be hit — although the toll on that end is already crushingly high, too high for a people who have seen nothing but pain and hardship since 1948.
Since 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, an informal truce has held between the militants still holed up in the camp and the Lebanese army, but Fatah al-Islam has vowed to fight “until the last drop of blood” (usually a sign that they’re getting close to the last drop) and the Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr told al-Arabiya television: “Preparations are seriously under way to end the matter. The army will not negotiate with a group of terrorists and criminals. Their fate is arrest, and if they resist the army, death.”
At the moment, it’s still quiet up here. But it’s unclear how long that will last.