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.