Read on for some analysis on: (1) competing claims as to the identity of Fatah Al-Islam, (2) what next for the political process in Lebanon, (3) more spillover from the unresolved Palestinian conflict, (4) lessons for the broader front against Al Qaeda , and (5) the Iraqi connection.
(1) So who are the Fatah Al-Islam? There are basically two competing claims as to who is behind this group that apparently emerged in late 2006. One has them linked to Al Qaedists, and, in particular, ex-al Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Zarqawi. The other pins them as a front for Syrian mischief in Lebanon.
The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The group, led by Shakir Al-Abssi, who was apparently released from a Syrian jail last year, and has well-documented links to al Qaeda. He set down roots in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, and the group first came to people’s attention when it claimed responsibility for a March attack in Ain Alaq in the Mt. Lebanon area. The New York Times had a piece featuring the group following this attack (subscription required).
The group claims that it draws inspiration from Salafist Jihadism, but that it has no direct affiliation to Al Qaeda. Fatah Al-Islam is not part of the Palestinian Fatah movement. While it is clearly part of the “al Qaeda family,” there are questions as to its Syrian links. Not surprisingly, the anti-Syrian Lebanese Government forces are adamant that Fatah Al-Islam is part of the ongoing Syrian subterfuge in their country, while the pro-Syrian opposition forces reject this assertion. This is a murky area.
The UN Security Council is currently considering the establishment of a tribunal to investigate the Hariri killing in which Syria is implicated. So this might be an obvious time for Syrian mischief making. On the other hand, the Syrian government faces its own threat of Salafist Jihadists, and encouraging such groups on their doorstep would be playing with fire.
(2) Getting a Lebanese political accommodation back on track: this latest crisis is happening against the backdrop of ongoing political instability in Lebanon. The Shi’a groups Hezbollah and Amal, and their Christian allies (led by Michel Aoun) withdrew from the government and have staged ongoing street protests, Parliament has stopped convening and the country is at a dangerous political impasse. External actors, including the US, France, Syrian and Iran, are pulling in competing directions, and occasional Arab League and other neighborly efforts towards reconciliation have so far failed to produce any results.
The Shi’a community in Lebanon cannot be vanquished or politically marginalized without risking further, and probably more devastating, instability. Lebanon’s leaders, despite their deep personal animosity, will need to find a way to reengage in a broad-based national dialogue whose remit will include power-sharing arrangements, security related issues, and the Hariri tribunal. Third parties, the US and Syria included, should encourage, rather than exclude, such a process.
(3) It’s the Palestinians, stupid. It is not a coincidence that the Fatah Al-Islam set up base in a Palestinian refugee camp. The unresolved Palestinian conflict is a source of region-wide instability. That can lead in one of two directions: either to damn those petulant Palestinians, or to take robust action to resolve the conflict. I think somehow that the latter course is more constructive and advisable.
There are twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and many others in Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank. Neither the refugee problem, nor the overall grievance that is the occupation and lack of Palestinian statehood will be addressed until there is a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The solution is hardly a mystery. Just read the Clinton Parameters or the Geneva Initiative. The absent ingredient is political will – in the region and beyond, and notably in America. Convincing American leaders to summon up that political will would be a fine challenge for the blogosphere.
(4) Lessons for the broader front against Al Qaeda: one of the interesting things that has happened in Lebanon in the past two days is that the Palestinian factions – Fatah and Hamas – that are busy killing each other in Gaza are actually cooperating in Lebanon, with each other and with the local authorities, to isolate the al Qaedist threat. The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Usamah Hamdan, has condemned the Fatah Al-Islam group and pledged to work to dissolve their activities. This might just point the way to a broader strategy for confronting al Qaedist groups across the region.
In fact, it is the strategy already in place in the Sunni areas of Iraq, but not really discussed elsewhere. In Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, America is making common cause with Sunni political Islamists (the latest alliance has been called the Reform and Jihad Front) to push back against al Qaeda. Such groups are basically the equivalent of the Muslim Brothers or Hamas in Iraq. These, essentially nationalist reformist political Islamists, for all their shortcomings (and there are many) probably offer the best bulwark against further al Qaedist gains.
Efforts at establishing dialogue, political accommodation, and rules of the game should be made between the West and the non-al Qaedist Sunni forces. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the place to start is the Palestinian Authority where Hamas is in government and won a democratic election.
(5) The Iraqi connection. According to Arab press reports, the Fatah Al-Islam leadership trained with the now expired Abu Musab Zarqawi, and his al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. In fact, it seems that many of the fighters now active in Tripoli had gained experience in the insurgency in Iraq. Last years’s US National Intelligence Estimate already drew the conclusion that Iraq had become a magnet and training ground for Jihadists, and was a significant factor in strengthening al Qaedist tendencies in the region. In that respect Tripoli, Lebanon just becomes another victim of the havoc spread by America’s Iraqi misadventure. Al Qaeda-inspired groups, since the Iraq invasion have sprung up in Jordan, in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, and now in Northern Lebanon.