By Charles Harb who teaches at the American University of Beirut (THE GUARDIAN, 24/05/07):
The violence that has engulfed the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon over the past few days, started after a night raid by internal security forces to arrest alleged bank robbers in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. That turned into armed clashes between police and a small radical Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam. Within hours, the Lebanese army was pulled into the conflict when more than a dozen soldiers were ambushed and killed. The army surrounded and began shelling the camp where Fatah al-Islam militants are based – home to more than 30,000 refugees – with mounting casualties on all sides, including civilians.
The story of Lebanon’s US-backed Siniora government and army battling an isolated al-Qaida-type terrorist group allegedly backed by Syria obscures a complex picture that has been years in the making, and which involves a peculiar social environment, Lebanese political manoeuvring, and the wider dynamics of an increasingly volatile region.
North Lebanon, especially Tripoli and Akkar, contains some of the country’s most deprived areas, neglected by successive governments. Tripoli, a traditionally conservative Sunni city, and Akkar, a strikingly poor province, became fertile territory for the proselytising of Salafist and radical Sunni groups. But impoverished conditions do not explain the rapid empowerment of radical Sunni movements in recent years; political cover was needed – and was provided by pro-government forces. In the 2005 national parliamentary elections, Saad al-Hariri, the son of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri, appealed to Sunni sentiment to woo northern voters. Significant efforts were made to bring the Sunnis of Tripoli and Akkar under his wing and away from the area’s traditional leaders. Fulfilling an electoral pledge, the new parliament pardoned jailed Sunni militants involved in violence in December 2000. Those clashes in Dinnieh between Islamist radicals and the Lebanese army left dozens dead in a precursor of the violence of recent days.
Courting radical Sunni sentiment is a dangerous game. A major sign of trouble ahead had already emerged in February last year, when a protest against the cartoons belittling the prophet Muhammad turned violent and the Danish embassy was set ablaze in the fashionable Beirut district of Ashrafieh. Most of those protesting came from the impoverished areas of the north.
This picture becomes more complicated when the regional dimension is factored in. The invasion of Iraq has inflamed the Sunni-Shia divide and is changing the dynamics of the Middle East. Fear of Shia influence in Arab affairs has prompted many Sunni leaders to warn of a “Shia crescent” stretching from Iran, through Iraq, to south Lebanon. Several reports have highlighted efforts by Saudi officials to strengthen Sunni groups, including radical ones, to face the Shia renaissance across the region.
But building up radical Sunni groups to face the Shia challenge can easily backfire. While militant Islamist groups are sensitive to appeals to Sunni sentiment, they remain locked in their own agenda. Courted by regional players – Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – and infiltrated by intelligence services, Islamist radical groups serve the needs of some without necessarily becoming servants to any.
Some perceive the fighting of recent days as a confrontation between regional forces – the US, Syria, Saudi Arabia – vying for control of the Lebanese political space. Others see it as a plan that went wrong, with Islamist groups escaping the control of the pro-government forces that nurtured them. And others perceive it as an attempt to draw the Lebanese army – regarded as the only genuinely national force in the country – into the fray of Lebanese politics.
The Siniora government is enfeebled. Claims that Syria is behind the current conflict have not so far been endorsed by the White House or other Arab leaders. The army, which has tried to remain neutral, is now muddied and its weaknesses made apparent to all.
The plight of thousands of Palestinian refugees trapped in the Nahr al-Bared camp echoes the Israeli bombing of Palestinian camps in occupied Palestine. Radical Islamist activists are moved by the atrocities in the north and attacks on their fellow militants. Palestinian factions are fractious, weakened, and infiltrated by foreign agents, further destabilising security within the refugee camps. The relations between Palestinian groups and Lebanese authorities are strained, and tensions can easily spill outside the refugee camps. The dangers of a conflagration that could spread across the country are serious. The US once nurtured the mujahideen in Afghanistan, only to pay the price much later. In the dangerous game of sectarian conflict, everyone stands to lose.