Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Monday, December 04, 2006

Crisis in Lebanon on Verge of Explosion

As crisis in Lebanon shows no sign of easing, violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds. Identified by police as Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite Muslim, he was shot during the clash in the Tarik Jdideh neighborhood. Although both sides still adhere to some sort of high tension restraint, it is surprising that sofar the violence has not spread into total chaos in the streets of Beirut.

Of special interest is that on the mass rallies, orchestrated by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the total absence of Hezbollah's disticint yellow banners was strangely conspicuous. Another surprise the mass rally provided over the weekend was the identity of the key speaker, not as expected Nasrallah in person, but – Maronite General Michel Aoun: In the distant past Aoun was a sworn enemy of the Syrians in Lebanon but he is now their ally. He has become Nasrallah's devoted partner and hopes to pave his way to the presidential palace at Baabda through his support of Nasrallah.

But there are other players, already working behind the scene, which may well turn the sofar controlled uprising into turmoil. Apart from Iran and Syria poking their fingers constantly into Lebanese affairs, Al Qaeda was said to have expanded its presence in Lebanon over the last few months. According to Lebanese security officials, Al Qaeda has gained control at least over over one Palestinian Islamist group in northern Lebanon.

The Beirut-based An Nahar reported that an Al Qaeda cell named Fatah Al Islam took over the pro-Syrian Fatah Al Intifada in the Palestinian refugee camp of Naher Al Bared in northern Lebanon. Lebanese sources said Fatah Al Intifada has been used by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to destabilize the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. They said operatives from Fatah Al Intifada were directed to kill senior Lebanese officials. On Nov. 29, the Lebanese daily Al Mustaqbal reported that Lebanese authorities arrested two Fatah Al Intifada operatives. The newspaper said the two were identified as Syrian agents ordered to assassinate senior Lebanese officials. Syria was said to have sent undercover operatives to the Palestinian refugee camps of Badawi and Burj Al Barajneh in Lebanon in order to raise suitable candidates for its operations.

Israel and several Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are increasingly concerned that Siniora's government will fall, resulting in a Hezbollah takeover that would turn the country into what an Israeli government source termed "the first Arab state to become an Iranian protectorate."Former chief of Israel Defense Forces Army Intelligence Corps, Major General (res.) Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, said Sunday the chances of another war in Lebanon would increase should Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora choose to resign. If Siniora's government falls, he warned, the Sunni leader will be forced to make concessions in favor of Syria and its allies, and possibly undermine the sole major achievement of Israel in the second Lebanon war - namely, the new security arrangements made along the border.

The stability of Security Council Resolution 1701 will certainly be in question. If Hezbollah determines who will form the next government in Lebanon, and even if Siniora emerges from this standoff as a weaker prime minister, the extent of cooperation between the government in Beirut and the UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, will be undermined. It is hard to imagine the European troops deployed in southern Lebanon staying there if Hassan Nasrallah signals that Hezbollah intends to target them, as it did French and American forces in 1983.

Last Thursday, the day before the anti-Siniora Hezbollah sponsored rallies started in downtown Beirut, a little mentioned incident happened on a remote crossing on the Syrian border, when border guards at the Jdeidet Yabous frontier post, questioned a suspected person, trying to cross into Lebanon with faked documents. Attempting to escape, the guards gave chase and the man detonated his hidden explosive belt, killing himself and wounding two members of the guards. Intelligence agents identified the body as 28 year old Omar Abdullah ( aka Omaer Hamra), a wanted leader of the Tawhid Wal Jihad Islamic group. Lebanese security officials told the local paper Ya Libnan, that "obviously Omar Hamra was not traveling to Lebanon as a tourist…he was heading here for trouble".

Tawhid Wal Jihad is an Islamic group founded by the late Sheikh Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and is believed to count several hundreds of Syrian members. The same group was blamed by Egypt's intelligence having perpetrated the recent bomb attacks in Sinai Jihad and three men of the group have been sentenced to death for organizing the attacks. Last Sunday's manhunt in Sinai after four Palestinians suspected of planning attacks on Israeli tourists is believed to be affiliated to this militant group.
Defense Update has investigated the origins of Jama'at Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, being its official name. The clandestine Sunni organization released a statement claiming it had officially joined the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, on Al-Arabiyah televisionon in October 2004, under the leadership of the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by US forces in Iraq last June. Jama'at al-Tawhid Wa'al-Jihad justifies its actions by the Wahabbi interpretation of Islamic Law, which legimatizes brutal methods of Jihad against infidels or their Arab stalwarts.
No doubt, Al Qaeda and its affiliates will continue to shower sparks over the Lebanese powder-keg- if its succeeds in inciting another civil war, perhaps Syria will try another comeback to revive the Taif Agreement, which held them fast in Lebanon's politics for nearly two decades.

Lebanon is already caught in a dynamic of crisis and even if there is a temporary easing of tensions because the rival factions manage to work out a compromise, this will only buy them time until the next flare-up. As for Israel, Siniora’s ability to implement UN Resolution 1701 will be further constrained by ongoing instability, and if he is overthrown and replaced by a unity government in which the "March 14 movement" ( kown after the day on which Christians, Sunnis and Druze rallied in downtown Beirut to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces), will have even less influence. 1701 will become a dead letter. If that happens, the outbreak of another Israel-Hizbullah war will just be a matter of time.

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