Thursday, May 24, 2007

Destruction and deceit in North Lebanon

Destruction and deceit in North Lebanon
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 24, 2007

There are few pleasures these days as Lebanon descends into the kind of violence that Syria seems to manufacture so effortlessly. However, one of them is discovering how easy it was for a gaggle of pro-Syrian Lebanese operators to manipulate investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, before he wrote a much-discussed article recently implying that the Lebanese government was financing Islamist groups, including Fatah al-Islam.

In his article for The New Yorker, Hersh faithfully channeled what sources in Lebanon told him, lending legitimacy to statements he otherwise failed to prove. Most prominently, for being so specific, he wrote that "representatives of the Lebanese government" had supplied weapons and money to Fatah al-Islam. But Hersh's only evidence for this claim was a quote attributed to one Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 agent who is co-director of Conflicts Forum, an institution advocating dialogue with Islamist movements. Nor did Crooke have direct knowledge of what he was saying. In fact, he "was told" the weapons were offered to the group, "presumably to take on Hizbullah." The argument is now being picked up by media belonging to senior members of the Syrian regime to affirm that the Lebanese Army is fighting an Islamist group in the Nahr al-Bared camp that is effectively on the payroll of Saad Hariri.

Lately, we've had more ricochets from that story. Writing in The Independent on May 22, journalist Robert Fisk, who we might forget lives in Beirut, picked up on Hersh, citing him uncritically to again make the case that Hariri was financing Islamists. So we have Fisk quoting Hersh quoting Crooke quoting someone nameless in a throwaway comment making a serious charge. Yet not one of these somnolent luminaries has bothered to actually verify if the story is true, even as everything about the fighting in Nahr al-Bared virtually confirms it is not true. The lie about the government financing of Fatah al-Islam has been given legitimacy thanks to a spectacular blunder by the Hariri camp, in particular Bahiyya al-Hariri. A few months ago she helped resolve a crisis that had resulted from the presence of Islamists located in the Taamir district of Sidon, abutting the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, by paying compensation money to Jund al-Sham militants so they would leave the area. From the narrow perspective of Sidon, which Bahiyya al-Hariri represents in Parliament, this made sense. Taamir was a running sore in relations between the state and inhabitants of the area on the one side and the Islamists and camp residents on the other. However, instead of disbanding, a number of the militants went to Nahr al-Bared, according to Palestinian sources. There, they joined Fatah al-Islam. Now the Hariris look like they financed Islamists, when they were really only doing what they usually do when facing a problem: trying to buy it away.

The relationship between Fatah al-Islam and Syria is not absolutely clear. While the movement is undeniably doing Syria's bidding today and has received Syrian logistical assistance (after all, its militants who weren't inside Lebanon had to enter from somewhere), Fatah al-Islam may be operating in collaboration with, rather than as a direct extension of, Syria's security services. This gives Syria deniability. Shaker Absy, who is wanted by the Jordanian authorities for the killing of an American diplomat in Amman in 2003, fought in Iraq and was briefly arrested by the Syrians before being sent to Lebanon, according to two Palestinian officials. Fatah al-Islam's sources of funding are also difficult to establish. The group has been supplied with up-to-date weaponry and the means to distribute patronage. But it might be a mistake to assume the money is Syrian, even though Damascus can turn the tap to the group on and off.

Between the fighting in the North and the bombings in Beirut, Syria is sending a very plain message, one that the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and the ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, brazenly echoed on Monday. It is that passage of the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter will mean a Lebanon in flames. The threat is clear, and the Verdun bombing on Monday evening seemed partly destined to send a message to the Russians, whose cultural center is located at the blast scene. Both Russia and China are the weak links in any Security Council vote on the tribunal.

However, Syria wants more than merely to undermine the tribunal. It wants to have a decisive say in who becomes president of Lebanon at the end of summer. The bloodshed in the North as well as the bomb attacks have another destination: the United States, which has indicated that Syria would not be consulted on Emile Lahoud's replacement.

The Assad regime never reconciled itself with its forced withdrawal from Lebanon, and is now actively seeking to reimpose its hegemony over its neighbor through a network of allies and agents. A return of tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers may not be achievable in the short term, particularly as the main barrier to such a return would, this time, be an outraged Sunni community. This could have severe implications for President Bashar Assad at home. However, the Syrians often operate according to an obsolete template - that of Hafez al-Assad. While it may be easy for them to provoke conflict in Lebanon, as they did throughout the war years between 1975 and 1990, the Syrian leadership might not be able to resist the blowback this time around if new hostilities break out.

Another Syrian objective, and this one will be far easier to achieve, is to increase Lebanese antipathy for the Hariri tribunal. It won't take many more bombs for people to begin wondering whether passage of the tribunal by the UN is worth Lebanon's destruction. Perhaps the tribunal is not worth it, but the question that both the international community and the Arab states must ask, and convincingly answer, is whether Syria will agree to surrender Lebanon if the tribunal's statutes are watered down. Up to now, Assad has shown no willingness to consider this quid pro quo.

Those who insist that Syria must be "engaged" have thought very little about how to safeguard Lebanese sovereignty. Yet unless the Security Council, the Europeans, and the Arab states show that Syria will pay a heavy price for what it is doing in Lebanon, things will only get worse in the country. Every day, Assad feels more confident that he can prevail. And when prominent Western journalists so gullibly write what the Syrians want them to, there is no reason for him to feel any other way.

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