A time-worn adage in journalism says that redundancy enables a better understanding of language, so here we go again : the tree of Iraq stops us seeing the Middle East wood. Absorbed in our navel-gazing, we behave like children covering our ears to stave off a reality we find distasteful. That happens in Iraq when we refuse to acknowledge that there are more variables than are apparent when trying to pin down what is happening in that country and it also happens in Lebanon when reality smacks us in the face. Reality turns up to find us, not asleep, but otherwise engaged.
In less than a year we have witnessed two predictable events whose occurrence nonetheless took many people unawares. The first was the war last summer and now it is happening again with confrontations between the Lebanese army and an apparently Palestinian organization linked to the most orthodox Islam. In an article published on June 13th last year at the very start of the war, I wrote, "In Lebanon there is not an Iraqi-style sectarian confrontation, but Sunni radicalism is on the increase in places like Tripoli and Akkar where it seems Al Qaeda is growing strong." (1)
Like it or not, Al Qaeda's progress in the Middle East is very fast and the terrain is made fertile by the war in Iraq. De facto, Al Qaeda is like the alien in Ridley Scott's film - a creature that grows inside the body feeding on it and when sufficiently strong it attacks its host. Scott could have added a line to the film's credits - "based on real life events". Events that took place in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. The aliens in those days were Islamists from all over the world who arrived in that land with the generous support of the United States and Saudi Arabia and who, after the Soviet withdrawal, evolved into the Al Qaeda phenomenon.
The Al Qaeda alien is now autonomous in Iraq and active on several fronts (against the occupiers, the Sunnis and the Shia whom it fights considering them apostates) but it can still not manage to fend for itself in Lebanon and needs a body on which to feed.. That body may well be Fatah al Islam, an organization that does not openly identify itself as part of Al Qaeda but does say it is "understanding of the brothers" (referring to Al Qaeda) and shares with them their religious and political tenets. Fatah al Islam identifies itself as "followers of the salafiyyah tradition of the Islamic nation", says it has a presence "in the land of Al Sham" (2) and in one of the few known documents of this group, dated in February, calls on muslims the world over to fight against "the enemies of Allah", criticises "apostate leaders" and especially Hamas for having signed the deal with Fatah to secure a government of national unity and accuses Hamas of having made "concessions in the rights of the Palestinians".
What are the reasons for this confrontation with a group inserted into a Palestinian refugee camp, not comprised simply of Arabs of that nationality who in fact are a minority, and an army that stayed on the sidelines during the war with Israel? Here are a few of them.
The Second Report of Ban Ki-moon
On May 7th this year the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, published his second report on Lebanon (the fifth in all since the end of last summer's hostilities). In it he maintained the previous line and drew even further away from the attempted even-handedness of his predecessor Kofi Annan in the report Annan published prior to his retirement in December 2006, the third overall. Nothing is squandered in Ban Ki-moon's report (3) and the accusations against Hizbollah for not disarming and against Syria and Iran are constant throughout the document's 14 pages and 66 points.
Ki-moon repeats to exhaustion that the Lebanese government is "legitimate" (ignoring the fact that the resignation of Shi'ite ministers and one Christian minister render it unconstitutional) thus dismissing protests that have been made since last November calling for a more representative government of national unity; it insists that arms trafficking continues from Syria to Hizbollah (accepting Israeli cliams on that issue and thus giving the all clear to Israel's constant violations of Resolution 1701 through its air force and spy plane flights); and despite having said in the previous report of March 14th this year that the maps defining the Shebaa Farms as either Syrian or Lebanese would be ready in June this year, now he says the map-makers "continue their work" and asks both countries to agree their territorial limits and frontiers. This request is not simply a formula to draw a new line on the map, it is vital to get the UN Security Council to extend the UNIFIL mission on the Syrian frontier so as to control the traffic in arms that, according to Israeli arguments, occurs along the whole length of the border.
Ban Ki-moon's report appeared after a failed attempt by the United States, France and Britain to get a new Security Council resolution on Lebanon in support of the Siniora government and accusing Syria and Iran of continuing to help Hizbollah with arms and money. The attempt to get the resolution passed was stopped by China and Russia and other member countries of the UN Security Council like Ghana and South Africa. In the failed draft resolution, the UN Security Council was asked to form an "independent mission" made up of "a committee of UN experts" to control the border. (4) A mission that was to be made up of European countries and into which were invited Egyptians and Jordanians, the two countries in the area that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.
Once that effort failed it was necessary to show unwilling countries and the world in general that the objectives in view were praiseworthy. No sooner did the fighting in Nahr al Bared begin than accusations against Syria have appeared in practically all the news media. Of Fatah al Islam little is known beyond that it is a splinter organization from Fatah Intifada and from that Syrian patronage is inferred. The Lebanese government and its Western mentors have rushed to accuse Syria of being behind this group with the purpose, they allege, of obstructing the international tribunal investigating the death of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. For almost two years the case of Hariri (a Sunni multi-millionaire closely linked to the Saudi regime and particularly Prince Bandar bin Sultan, now Saudia Arabia's Security Minister) is the only pretext offered by a corrupt neo-liberal government to explain what is happening in Lebanon and is nothing more than a sign of its own corruption and its submission to neo-liberal politics designed by the IMF and the World Bank.
Syria may be involved or it may not. What is clear is that Fatah al-Islam became known in 2006 at the same time as the proclamation of the Islamic State in Iraq by Al Qaeda. And for anyone familiar with the situation in the Palestinian refugee camps it is obvious that the group has nothing to do with Syria.
In the course of a visit to some of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon (Nahr Al Bared, Ein el Helwe, Chatila y Burj el Barajne) in December 2006 during an impressive popular mobilization for a representative national government in Lebanon (5), leading members of the Popular Council that governs Nahr al Bared spoke with me about the existence among them of Fatah al Islam whom they did not describe as a Palestinian organization since it was made up mostly of Saudis, Morrocans, Algerians, Jordanians, Yemenis and Egyptians , "many of them jihadists in Iraq". Other representatives of Ein el Helwe mentioned that after the confrontations between militias of another Islamist organization, Jund al Sham and other Palestinian organizations like Asbat al Ansar, also radically Islamist, which caused two deaths, some members of Jund al Sham moved "to the north" and have joined Fatah al Islam. Compounding the suspicious appearance of this group in Lebanon, even then it was noted that the funding for its growth came from the Saudis and Hariri's own son Saad with the double aim of limiting the prestige of Hamas among Palestinians and also, above all, that of Hizbollah.
The United States' secret war against Hizbollah
Time, an implacable judge, has ended up vindicating people who have been right all along despite the campaigns of the Western mass media. No one can dispute that Hizbollah's victory over Israel is perhaps the most striking event so far in the 21st century, given that it put an end to one of the myths of the 20th Centruy, the invincibility of Israel. It is what Middle East experts are beginning to call the "Hizbollah effect" and it has overturned neocolonial designs in this part of the world. That is why from almost the very moment it acknowledged Israel's defeat the United States has set in motion a secret war against the Lebanese political-military movement.
Various newspapers (the UK Guardian, the Lebanese Daily Star and the US New Yorker for example) have published since January this year news or reports on that issue. In March the journalist Seymour Hersh said that the US Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Council adviser Elliot Abrams and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, himself his country's Security Minister, had agreed to fund Fatah al Islam "as a counterweight to Hizbollah". On April 12th, the Daily Star noted that the United States had earmarked US$60m to reinforce Interior Ministry forces and Sunni organizations identified by the paper as "jihadists", without specifically mentioning any of them. Some days later Asia Times gave ample coverage along the same lines, "Iraq has arrived in Lebanon. Hundred of jihadists spread among more than 400,000 Palestinians who live in the refugee camps are joining Ansar al Islam or Fatah al Islam clearly following plans of Al Qaeda and with combat experience acquired on the Iraqi battlefield fighting the US occupation."(6) And Hizbollah itself, via its Al Manar television station confirms the thesis, alleging that the presence of jihadists in Lebanon is part of a US, Israeli and Saudi strategy seeking a regional war between Sunni and Shia which would see the partition of Iraq followed by the partition of Syria and Lebanon. (7)
The US plan is being implemented by Fouad Siniora's government which has not hesitated for a moment to accuse Syria of protecting and arming Fatah al Islam. With this episode, on the one hand strong tensions are built up with the aim of softening the positions of countries critical of US, French and British efforts to secure a new UN Sceurity Council resolution to extend UNIFIL's mission, to control the Syrian frontier under the pretext of arms smuggling and to justify a kind of international tutelage of Lebanon. The new French President Nicolas Sarkozy will have his first test to see if he maintains the policy of his predecessor Jacques Chirac who has received favours and money from Saad Hariri and who in return supported him unconditionally following his father's assassination.
On the other hand, the Lebanese army is being tried out in a role it has not been involved in since the Taif peace agreement, until now : internal repression. What is being seen is the possibility of a future confrontation between the Lebanese army and Hizbollah, which explains why the political military movement has from the outset supported the army. In a somewhat complex statement, Hizbollah has condemned the attacks of Fatah al Islam against the Lebanese army at the same time as it has criticised the government ("we feel there is someone who wants to drag the army into confrontation and bloody fighting to serve well-known projects and objectives") and asked for a political solution to the crisis to avoid more suffering for the already hard-hit Palestinian population of the camps. (8) Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's Secretary General has been more explicit, saying " the problem in the north can be solved politically and judicially in a way that protects the Lebanese army, our Palestinian brothers, a state of stability and peace wihtout turning Lebanon into a battlefield on which we fight Al Qaeda on the Americans' behalf". Nasrallah went even further and categorically said that what imperialism wants is a conflict between Al Qaeda and Hizbollah and "is bringing Al Qaeda fighters from all over the world to Lebanon" to that end. (9)
Nasrallah also said, in a warning to the Siniora government and the forces that support it that "the Lebanese army is the guardian of national security, stability and unity", for which it is respected as the "only institution" able to preserve those things and that an attack on the army is the "red line" whose transgression that Hizbollah will not tolerate by anyone. Furthermore he put his finger on the sore point by affirming that military aid provided by the United States is dangerous and asks the Siniora government "where were these arms when Israel bombed your vehicles and your positions? It is something one has to ask the Lebanese, Palestinian and Arab peoples." Nasrallah has repeatedly accused the Bush administration of unleashing a "fitna" or "fragmentation within Islam" referring to tensions and confrontations between Sunnis and Shia.
But there is more. NATO has in mind building a military base in Qleiat very close to Tripoli - where the Nahr el Bared camp is sited - and to the northern frontier with Syria. It will accommodate a helicopter squadron, special forces units and will train the Lebanese Army and police. (10) The area will already have been visited in mid-April by a team of US, German and Turkish military looking for the ideal location.
The US and its European and Arab allies are doing all they can to avoid the collapse of the Siniora government because that would be seen by the Arab peoples as an unequivocal sign of US decline in the Middle East. For that reason every change in the current correlation of forces in Lebanon (where the Shia population is under-represented in the government despite forming 40% of the coutnry's population) needs to be blocked, which in turn explains Siniora's resistance to the opposition forces' democratic proposals : either a government of national unity or a bringing forward of elections.
The fiasco of the Paris 3 aid commitments
Into this scenario one has to add that the aid (almost US$8bn) promised to the Siniora government by the Western powers and many Arab countries during January's Paris summit not only never came but is in fact generating debt. Treasury minister Jihad Azour has had to recognize that the bogged-down political situation is going to cost Lebanon a billion dollars since the neo-liberal economic measures promised in order to get that aid cannot be implemented. Parliamentary assent is required for that to happen and the opposition is clear that there will be no parliamentary quorum so long as elections are not called or else until a national unity government is installed. One must not forget that Saudi Arabia has big financial interests in Lebanon that cannot proceed so long as the current parliamentary boycott persists.
On May 10th, the Siniora government signed an agreement to oversee Lebanon's State sector spending with the IMF, heavily criticised by Hizbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement (the biggest Christian organization composed mainly of that religion's middle and lower-middle classes). The instability helps prop up Siniora, hands arguments to those forces pulling the strings from the outside and to some extent confounds the opposition albeit indirectly since in supporting the Lebanese army they are obliged to align themselves to a degree with the government. That is something Siniora's pro-Western, neoliberal administration actively sought since several criticisms have been heard internally of what is considered "complicity with the opposition" by a section of the army, which is mostly made up of Shia.
And with that panorama, a question : if it is of such interest for the UN to enforce resolutions on Lebanon - how long before 194, the right of return of the Palestinian refugees? The Arab League plan dusted off after Hizbollah's victory included this right, but in the negotiations between the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and US and Israeli emissaries, they are already talking of accepting just a symbolic return. The Palestinians, once more history's great pariahs, are turned into exchange currency and cannon fodder.
(1) Alberto Cruz, "La lecciÃ³n de HizbulÃ¡" http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=34516
(2) Salafiyyah Islam is the tradition of following the first believers of Mahomet's generation. The reference to Al Sham is historical and refers to the area currently comprising Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
(3) Fifth semester report of teh Secretary General on the application of Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004) S/2007/262 of May 7th 2007.
(4) The Daily Star, 20 de abril de 2007.
(5) Alberto Cruz, "HizbulÃ¡ lee a Gramsci" http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=43303
(6) The Asia Times, 20 de abril de 2007.
(7) Al Manar, 23 de abril de 2007.
(8) Al Manar, 20 de mayo de 2007.
(9) Al Manar, 25 de mayo de 2007.
(10) Al Diyar, 15 de abril de 2007.
Alberto Cruz is a journalist, political scientist and writer specializing in international relations.
Translation copyleft by tortilla con sal.