Thursday, August 14, 2008

Once again, the trap is set in Tripoli

Once again, the trap is set in Tripoli
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 14, 2008

If you're wondering what happened yesterday in Tripoli, where a bomb exploded alongside a bus, killing several Lebanese soldiers and civilians, here's an interpretation based on a visit to the city earlier this week. The bomb attack will probably be claimed by Shaker Absi and Fatah al-Islam, or by some unknown Salafist group. You, the reader, must have already established a link between the Ain Alaq bus bombings, which security officials blamed on Fatah al-Islam, and the Tripoli bombing, and that's no coincidence. The killing of soldiers was no coincidence either. Like the attack against a military intelligence office in Abdeh several weeks ago, the aim of those placing the bombs was to convince you and I that Sunni extremist groups are alive and well in the North, that they have an axe to grind with the army because of Nahr al-Bared, and that an insurrection has begun, one directed even against the Hariri camp, as when parliamentarian Mustapha Alloush was roughed up last week by Salafists trying to secure the release of imprisoned relatives.

The reality, I believe, is different. Recently, colleagues who closely follow events in Tripoli have started hearing of Syrian warnings to the Lebanese that there would be no peace in the city until the Salafists were routed. Who would conduct such an operation but the army, explaining why soldiers have been the victims of recent attacks. Syria's implication in the bombings is highly probable, its objective being to push the army and the Salafists into a confrontation. This would create a serious rift within the Sunni community, weaken the disoriented pro-Hariri forces in Tripoli, and allow Damascus' allies to regain the initiative in the city.

The reality is that Salafists in Tripoli are not strong. In the recent fighting between the Sunni quarters of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, the Salafists, who belong to a variety of small groups, proved to be much less numerous than anyone had imagined. As a neighborhood leader in Bab al-Tebbaneh described it, the confrontations exposed the Salafists' weaknesses, not their strengths. The brunt of the fighting was borne by the men of Bab al-Tebbaneh, though followers of a leading opposition politician used the hostilities to burnish his legitimacy as a "defender of the Sunnis." The Alawite official Rifaat Eid admitted that the fighting erupted after a rocket propelled grenade was fired at his men by partisans of this opposition politician.

If you see a contradiction between an opposition politician fighting against the pro-Syrian Alawites while also helping implement Syria's agenda of destabilizing Tripoli, you shouldn't. That's par for the course in the North these days, in a situation growing more cynical by the day. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, like the Sunnis of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh, are pawns in a game larger than they are, and will say so openly. Neither side wants fresh violence, which has damaged the livelihoods of most people in the dirt poor quarters and those around them.

If the Lebanese Army were to attack the Salafists, this would only pour oil onto the fire in Tripoli and make the situation there far worse than it already is. Surveying the Islamists and Salafists in the city, the picture that emerges is a complicated one. There are several smaller Salafist groups, some of which have been penetrated by the security forces and are therefore more manageable. Others may prove more problematic, but are apparently too small to do much damage on their own. There are Islamist groups with ties to the Hariri camp, and there are those close to Syria, such as the followers of Bilal Shaaban, Hashem Minqara, and Fathi Yakan. This mishmash is further complicated by the obscure networks existing between many of these groups, whatever their public loyalties, and by their relations with mainstream Tripoli politicians. In other words if the army were to enter the fray against the Salafists, this could open up a Pandora's box of recrimination, militancy, and political manipulation, leading to the situation we saw at the start of the Nahr al-Bared fighting last year, when it was plainly the Syrian intention to create rifts within the Sunni community, before the army managed to take things in hand.

It was no coincidence, either, that the bombing occurred on the day of Michel Sleiman's visit to Damascus. There were several messages to the president: that Lebanese security will continue to remain vulnerable if he opposes Syrian priorities (and that includes, among other things, Syrian choices for the post of army commander and military intelligence chief); that Sleiman's priorities, in turn, such as addressing diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus and the fate of Lebanese prisoners in Syria, are secondary to the Syrians; that intimidation remains Syria's modus operandi when it comes to its relationship with Lebanon; and that Sleiman would make a mistake to rely too much on the parliamentary majority, which is buttressed by a Sunni community that can be readily split.

Judging from the political vacuum that today exists among Tripoli's Sunnis, the Syrians may just be right. The Future Movement's representatives in the North are not liked at the street level. Saad Hariri is respected, but given that he has yet to create a political center of gravity in Tripoli, the approval could begin to fray - indeed is already showing unsettling signs of fraying. Hariri will have to be careful in the elections next year. Depending on which alliances take shape he may be unable to take his entire list into Parliament, and this could be a blow to his prestige. Even some politicians close to the Hariri camp are wondering whether they would not be better off standing as independents.

Hariri and his people didn't want to get involved in the recent Bab Tebbaneh-Jabal Mohsen fighting because they didn't want to be seen as backing armed militias. Fair enough, but nature abhors a vacuum. Unless the Future Movement gets an organizational hold on what is happening in Tripoli, unless it imposes a sense of focus on its fractured and bewildered Sunni base, that vacuum will be filled by its enemies. The bus bombing yesterday ultimately targeted not the army but the Sunnis. Syria wants them irredeemably divided. Hariri must ensure that such a plan fails.

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