Explaining the Lebanese Jihadi Crisis

Are you having trouble understanding what’s going on in Lebanon? Last summer there was war with Israel. All winter and spring the country has been in a political crisis between the government and Hizballah. And now all of a sudden there is some mystery jihadi group staging an uprising in a Palestinian camp. What gives? What does it mean?

Well, if it makes you feel any better, most of us who are covering this incident are confused too. That’s in part because the battle for Nahr al-Bared conflates at least four different Middle Eastern conflicts. Perhaps it will help if I lay them out.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Lebanon has some 400,000 Palestinian refugees that originally came in two waves — 1948 and 1967. That was a long time ago though, and the younger generations have never seen their home country, and still don’t have citizenship in this one. Most of the residents of Nahr al-Bared hail from Nazareth in the Galilee.

The Lebanese-Palestinian conflict: The Palestinians brought a lot of trouble with them to Lebanon. Since most of them are Sunni Muslim, their arrival upset this country’s fragile sectarian balance, pushing Lebanon towards the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Nor did it help that the PLO turned Lebanon into a base for terror operations against Israel, which led Israel to invade in 1982 (they finally left Southern Lebanon in 2000).

One of the legacies of that period is that Palestinian camps have remained outside the reach of the Lebanese government. As part of an agreement with the Arab League, the Palestinians take care of their own security in order to protect themselves from massacres like the ones in Sabra and Chatila, when Lebanese militiamen murdered Palestinian civilians. An unfortunate side effect of Palestinian self-policing is that armed Palestinian parties are often used as proxy pawns by foreign governments, and the camps are open to infiltration by radical foreign groups. Enter Fatah Al Islam.

Syria (and Iran) vs America: Syria (and its close ally Iran) are in a struggle with America for supremacy in the Middle East, and Lebanon is one of the main battle grounds. Syria wants to regain control of Lebanon which it lost in 2005, after the car bomb killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri galvanized international opinion against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

The American-supported Lebanese government is accusing Syria of backing Fatah al-Islam. The concern is that the Syrians will create instability in this country and then slowly work their way back into Lebanon in order to “protect” the Lebanese from themselves.

But like so much in these shadow conflicts, the connection between Syria and Fatah al Islam isn’t established fact. As Robert Baer points out in a TIME column, there’s no love lost between the secular Syrian regime and Sunni radicals like Fatah Al Islam. And Seymour Hersh, the New Yorker journalist who exposed torture at Abu Ghraib, is going around saying the the US and its allies in Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese government supported the Sunni radicals in Fatah al Islam as a counterweight to Hizballah — the Syrian suppported Lebanese Shi’ite militia and political party that is trying to topple the Lebanese government.

Al Qaeda jihad: Though the head of Fatah Al Islam is Palestinian, its fighters hail from all over the seething Arab world. They are united by their radical resistance to Western infidels and their Middle Eastern allies like the Lebanese government. The link to Al Qaeda too is murky, but Fatah Al Islam is one of the many groups springing up around the Middle East for whom Osama bin Laden is more of an inspiration than a leader.

So why have all these conflicts suddenly merged? And why now? One explanation is that the conflict between America and Syria over Lebanon is coming to head. The UN Security Council may soon vote on a resolution sponsored by the US to set up a tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri case. (The UN investigation implicated top Syrian officials.)

But another deeper explanation is that the war in Iraq is transforming the region, and linking up all kinds of local problems into meta-conflicts. Not only has the American catastrophe in Iraq emboldened Syria and Iran to challenge American power in Lebanon, but it is opening up pockets of chaos like the one in Nahr al-Bared. Whether or not they are supported by the Syrians or a sort-sighted Dick Cheney conspiracy, Fatah Al Islam is part of the Iraq phenomenon. Many of its fighters supposedly are veterans of that conflict.

Meta-conflicts become harder to solve than local problems. Thus the Lebanese army is wary of storming Nahr al-Bared not just because it has taken a beating from the jihadis already, but because doing so might open up old wounds with the Palestinains, especially if there are more civilian casualties. And though the Lebanese army will surely win this particualr fight, will it end up like the American army in Iraq, playing Wack A-Mole as it pacifies one camp only to see new struggles emerge in others? There are certainly no shortage of foreign fighters learning jihad in Iraq who might enjoy a Mediterranean vaction in Lebanon. If that’s the case, the battle for Nahr al-Bared could be a dress rehearsal for bigger battles to come.

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