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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Books on Syria

Update No: 043 - (29/05/07)

"Black May"
Echoing some of the worse internal battles since the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon, on Sunday May 20th, fighting broke out at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon near Tripoli between the newly formed terror group 'Fatah al-Islam' and the regular Lebanese Army. The founder of the new group is a Palestinian named Shaker al-Abssi, whose stated goal is to establish Islamic law in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and eventually destroy both the United States and Israel. Al-Abssi reportedly broke from Arafat's Fatah and set up a base in Syria, though the Syrians did not welcome his presence and held him in prison for three years on charges of terrorism. Even Hamas has renounced him (interesting as Hamas is once again engaged in a battle against Fatah and Israel in Gaza). Surely, such a presence suggests that there is a growing risk of Sunni Islamic radicalism and violence in Lebanon; it also adds to the list of Lebanese problems that the anti-Syrian factions within and outside Lebanon can blame on Syria. 

The suggestion of a link between Fatah al-Islam to Alawite Syria (Militant Islamists have never been welcome in Syria, and the Alawi are heretics according to Salafist) - is without merit. The Alawites are not even remotely ideologically aligned to a group like Fatah al-Islam. However naturally, since many (and some powerful) people want it that way, Syria is not being excluded as the party to blame. It could be involved in future, if the manifestation of this new islamist radical group serves as the excuse to purge Lebanon of all islamist organizations, Sunni and Shiite, including Hezbollah, which does have close links to Syria. But the fact is that Lebanon alone, is almost certainly incapable of eradicating the islamist groups to whom they find themselves involuntarily playing host. 

Syria's detractors have gone on beyond pointing the finger of blame at Damascus, by suggesting that Syria's motivation in "shaking up the Lebanese scene" is a refusal by president Bashar al-Asad to recognize the U.N.-mandated international tribunal on the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, should it infringe on Syrian sovereignty. This implies that Syria would refuse to cooperate with the court if it indicts Syrian citizens in the assassination, which is quite likely to happen. The Syrian attitude and 'tribunal' crisis has left Lebanon unable to resolve its political crisis, where Syrian ally Hezbollah, stalled the political process by withdrawing five ministers from the cabinet. 

At the time of writing in the fighting between the Lebanese army and the islamists, at least 100 people were killed, including militants, soldiers and civilians after three days of combat. Several refugees from the camp have been forced to move to other camps in the Tripoli area, testifying to the ferocity of the hostilities, but the Lebanese army was wise enough not to storm the camp in search of the terror suspects. That risk remains of course, as the Lebanese government issued an ambiguous statement suggesting that all options were being considered to deal with the situation. The Fatah al-Islam group, which many have suggested is the Lebanese branch of al-Qaida - if the infamous organization were engaged in awarding franchises, made its first violent mark by bombing a bus last March. The group is claimed by others to be an offshoot of the Fatah al-Intifadah, related to the Fatah organization founded by Yasser Arafat, but its leader and several of its members are identified as veterans of the fighting in Iraq basing themselves in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. 

Echoes of the Past
The sudden appearance of the group, the timing (in view of the ongoing political standoff in Lebanon) of its attacks and the overall strategic situation in the Middle East region echo the Lebanese civil war, when Palestinians in the refugee camps had to face a Lebanese (the Maronites and even the Shiites, among others) and an Israeli enemy. It also calls to mind the radicalization of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) in Jordan, who emerged on the scene after the 1967 Six-Day war in a series of hijackings between 1967 and 1970 that culminated in the blowing up of three airliners in a former British airfield in Jordan, Dawson's Field, and by taking on the Jordanian army and King Hussein in the weeks that followed. That struggle became known as 'Black September'. It resulted in the PLO survivors and their families being expelled from Jordan in July 1971. The heavily-armed PLO found a new home in Lebanon and inevitably forced their way into becoming another player in the political life of their unfortunate host country. Less than a decade later Palestinian militants were involved in skirmishes with the Israelis, who retaliated, often causing heavy loss of life among the civilian population. 

This short flashback is intended to put the current situation in the Middle East into perspective. It also suggests that little has changed. The Palestinian problem is still the thorn that won't go away and the one problem that has both united the Arabs against their common enemy of Israel, as well as divided them over that very same common enemy. The real issues that few have presented in accounting for the renewed violence involving Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, is that they live in absolutely miserable conditions, completely isolated from the rest of the country, condemned to abject poverty, and unable to find proper employment or even an education. The ensuing desperation no doubt creates fertile ground for rebel groups to establish themselves and recruit the hopeless young, with ease.

Intrigue and Rumours
Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora reiterated he would use an iron fist approach to deal with Fatah al-Islam, but life conditions for the refuges at the Nahr al Bared camp remain treacherous, and can only get worse. Moreover, the events at Nahr al-Bared only serve to remind the over 430,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon of the horror they faced in 1982, the Israeli invasion, Sabra and Shatila and the all too many tragedies they have had to endure. Interestingly, much of the population in the camp initially supported the Lebanese army against Fatah al-Islam; however, local sources suggested that the Lebanese army's operations have ended up targeting civilians directly, such as to possibly turn the popular feeling in defence of Fatah al-Islam, not to mention the political consequences in Lebanon. The editor of the London based Palestinian newspaper 'al-Quds al-Arabi', Abdel Bari Atwan, said the soldiers were incompetent in dealing with the crisis, leading to the death of many soldiers. The high number of casualties then clouded the operations with a vengeful approach that targeted innocents instead of the militants. The risk remains that there could be a high political price to be paid if a negotiated solution is not found to the Fatah al-Islam problem, leading to further loss of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps. Just as on several other occasions, from the events of Black September to those of Lebanon in the mid-1970s, the Palestinian refugees can serve as the wild card that triggers regional conflicts. 

Continued tensions with the Palestinians would inevitably draw Syria, directly or indirectly. Indeed, Syria is already involved, as the Druze leader - predictably - has once again accused Syria this time of having exported Fatah al-Islam into Lebanon. Jumblatt is not the only one to blame Syria, even as Syria has flatly denied any involvement and closed its border with Lebanon, when the fighting started. Certainly, the secular Ba'athist regime in Syria has nothing to gain in supporting Salafi radicals, who are as much a threat to its own survival as that of any secular Arab state. Moreover, even as Syria faces renewed accusations of meddling in Lebanese affairs, several sources including Seymour Hersh, who is well connected to international intelligence, have indicated that rather than being a Syrian creation, prime minister Fouad Siniora and other 'anti-Syrians' like Saad Hariri willingly allowed Fatah al-Islam to set a base in Lebanon in order to counter the rising power of Shi'ite Hezbollah, especially after the Israeli military setback in the summer of 2006. Salafists who are Sunni, consider Shiites to be heretics (and vice versa). 

There is also the issue of ascending Iranian influence in the region, which some Saudis (Prince Bandar) and other Sunni states like Jordan, as well as the United States, are trying to contain by promoting radical Sunni groups, as if the region's convoluted situation can be balanced like a simple equation. During an interview, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah hinted to Seymour Hersh that he was more afraid of being assassinated by other Arabs than by Israelis. The Nahr al-Bared residents said that Fatah al-Islam members, including non-refugees and non-Palestinians such as Saudis, Pakistanis, Algerians and Tunisians settled in their camp in September 2006. Camp residents have described them as being very involved in praying and military training, rather than offering help to the population (the Hezbollah tactic for support). This is at first sight odd, as Nahr al-Bared has the highest percentage of abjectly poor Palestinian refugees anywhere, prime targets for the kind of approach favoured by Hezbollah. Perhaps, unlike Hezbollah, who had Iran to fund their generosity there is no comparable source of funding for the islamists of Fatah al- Islam and why they were, as we were told, engaged in robbing a bank 

Conspiracy Theories
In the absence at this stage of hard facts, we report unconfirmed rumors that a certain 'Welch Club' exists, named after David Welch, assistant to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and involved in an operation led by Eliot Abrams. 

The 'Club' is said to include such members as Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri. The Welch Club is said to be financing various Sunni radical groups in Lebanon, placing them in Palestinian refugee camps, with the purpose of triggering a Sunni-Shi'a civil war. The bank robbery that preceded the Nahr al-Bared violent episode was, allegedly, retaliation for failed payments, due to cold feet from Welch Club handlers. This account is based on an elaboration of Hersh's investigations and remains unproven; nevertheless what is certain is that Syria could have done without being blamed for yet another problem in the Lebanon. 

Interestingly, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in the weeks that preceded the Nahr al Bared incident, was indicating some frustration with the 'March 14' coalition, the political faction led by Saad Hariri that is trying to isolate Syria. At the latest Arab summit in Riyadh, King Abdallah put Syria at centre stage, indicating disapproval with the Siniora leadership, by also inviting the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud. Syria also won another diplomatic breakthrough with the United States when it held, a 30 minutes meeting, which was the first high- level contact between the two countries since the US recalled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005, after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. It remains to be seen what diplomatic repercussions the Fatah al-Islam incident will have. Syria appeared to have improved its regional and international standing after the bullying and demonization of the past two years, but if allegations continue with more off-the-wall suggestions that this latest unpleasant gang of islamist terrorists is a proxy of theirs, despite rather convincing evidence that it is not so. Then this probable invention of the many enemies they have made by their past deeds in Lebanon, and with those US and Israeli propagandists happy enough to belabour them with any stick that comes to hand, then some of the mud will be bound to attach. 

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