Why Lebanon Is Erupting Again

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Mitchell Prothero / Polaris

Lebanese soldiers help a wounded comrade during a gun battle with the Palestinian radical group Fatah al-Islam in the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city.

Much remains a mystery about Fatah al-Islam, the Palestinian-led Sunni Muslim fundamentalist faction that sprang up six months ago and is at the center of Lebanon's latest fighting. What is known, however, indicates that the group based near the northern coastal city of Tripoli is a product of past Middle East conflict, a manifestation of present unrest in Lebanon and an ominous sign of future turmoil throughout the region.

The biggest concern now is that Fatah al-Islam is a tool created by the Syrian regime to stir up chaos in Lebanon as a way of heading off a U.N. tribunal that may prosecute Syrian officials for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “The Syrian regime is continuing its old policies of using Palestinians as fodder for all the battles the Syrians are waging in the region,” says Lebanese commentator Khayrallah Khayrallah. But a longer-term worry is that a triangle of continuing political instability from Baghdad to Gaza to Tripoli will spawn a even more armed extremist factions — perhaps even al-Qaeda bases — threatening the entire region.

Fatah al-Islam's roots can loosely be traced to Israel's 1948 war of independence, when thousands of Palestinians fled their homes for a dozen refugee camps in Lebanon. Squalid, overcrowded camps such as Nahr el-Bared, where the Lebanese army is now battling Fatah al-Islam fighters, became breeding grounds for the Palestine Liberation Organization's guerrilla groups. After Israel's 1982 invasion to evict the PLO from Lebanon, the Syrian regime launched a campaign of its own against Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, sponsoring a splinter group that called itself Fatah Intifadeh. That faction, backed by Syrian artillery, drove Arafat out of Tripoli in 1983.

In late 2006, a fighter named Shaker al-Absi broke away from Fatah Intifadeh and called his new faction Fatah al-Islam. This time the split appeared to be rooted in the growth of al-Qaeda and the terrorism unleashed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another indication of extremism's viral spread since Sept. 11. The original Fatah as well as the initial splinter group always espoused a secular Palestinian state, but Fatah al-Islam not only preaches an ultra, Salafist brand of Islam, but appears to have at least logistical links with al-Qaeda. In 2004, a Jordanian court convicted al-Absi and nine others for an al-Qaeda plot that included the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. Al-Absi was convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, as was the late Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was a Jordanian like al-Absi.

Although Fatah al-Islam appears rooted in conflicts related to Palestine, Iraq and al-Qaeda's global jihad, the group's activities have added a dangerous new element of instability in Lebanon, a country already reeling from last summer's Israel-Hizballah war and Hizballah's subsequent attempts to topple the pro-American Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Lebanese army launched its attacks following indications that Fatah al-Islam was setting up an al-Qaeda base in Lebanon like Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The group's provocations include alleged involvement in February bus bombings in a Christian enclave, recent bank robberies and attacks on Lebanese soldiers. Government security forces are waging a military operation intended to flush out the group's 200 or more fighters, which include Saudis, Syrians, Yemenis, Moroccans as well as Palestinians. Yet the bombardment of a Palestinian refugee camp risks broadening the conflict to include other mainstream Palestinian factions as well as Hizballah — which, though a Shi'ite group at odds with al-Qaeda, is nonetheless closely allied with Sunni Palestinian factions like Hamas. With Lebanon balanced on a knife-edge since Hariri's killing two years ago, many fear that unrest could cause the country to stumble backwards into the civil war that ravaged the country between 1975-90, itself ignited amid friction involving armed Palestinian groups.

Siniora's government believes that Fatah al-Islam is a Syrian proxy, stirring up trouble in order to sabotage efforts to set up a U.N. tribunal in the Hariri assassination and eventually reassert Syrian hegemony in Lebanon; a U.N. investigative report has cited senior officials close to Syrian President Bashar Assad for complicity in the 2005 killing. The government said suspects arrested in the February bus bombings confessed to being Fatah al-Islam members working for Syria, with apparent orders to attack U.N. forces in southern Lebanon and target 36 Lebanese for assassination. Syrian officials angrily rejected the accusations, saying that the group was affiliated to al-Qaeda and that al-Absi spent three years in a Syrian prison on terrorism charges.

Nonetheless, fingers remain pointed at Syria, in part because of the regime's history of working with groups of all manner of ideologies as part of its struggle for strategic control of Lebanon. Lebanese officials suspect that Syria has covert ties with Fatah al-Islam because Syria freed al-Absi from prison and because al-Absi maintained a long membership in the Syrian-backed Fatah Intifadeh group. The tie is difficult to prove, for the moment at least. But the Siniora government's suspicions, the heavy fighting in Tripoli and the looming showdown with Syria over the U.N. tribunal may combine for another season of turmoil in Lebanon.