Across the Bay

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Assad Launches War on Lebanon

Three days ago, Muhammad Choucair wrote in al-Hayat that there were fears that the (Syrian allied) Fateh al-Islam and Jund al-Sham would be used by "regional sides" (i.e. Syria) at the right time against UNIFIL, but also as part of the attack against the tribunal, especially when all of Syria's tools in Lebanon -- not to mention Assad himself -- have threatened that if the tribunal is passed by the Security Council, war would be unleashed on Lebanon.

In fact, Syria had set the stage for using Fateh al-Islam 5 days before the Choucair article appeared. On Friday, 5/11, An-Nahar reported that Fateh al-Islam had issued a statement that some of its members had clashed with Syrian forces as they tried to sneak into Iraq.

It was a classic Syrian set-up, with a double message. On the one hand, it was meant to preemptively provide deniability for what's about to take place in Lebanon, while simultaneously resending the standard message that Syria is "ready to cooperate" on Iraq in return, however, for Lebanon, where it wants to present itself as the only power capable of controlling the Islamists.

Readers will recall how last year, even before the July war, I began collecting statements by Syrian officials, from Bashar down to Amr Salem and Mohsen Bilal, making this very point, and threatening to unleash "al-Qaeda" in Lebanon and against the revamped UNIFIL to be deployed in the south (technical references were used, such as 1983, and the term "multinational forces"). Syria also threatened that it would shut its borders with Lebanon.

And so, days after these developments, and as the draft to establish the tribunal under Chapter 7 is being discussed in the Security Council, Fateh al-Islam attacks the Lebanese Army in Northern Lebanon, and Syria shuts its borders with Northern Lebanon. And not a peep has been heard so far from Syria's stooges in the North, be they Omar Karami or others. In fact, Syria's Islamist tool Fathi Yakan was in Syria today, and to be frank, I wouldn't be surprised if he's involved in the clashes (he had met with Shaker al-Absi a couple of weeks ago after a May 8 visit to Damascus, according to some reports). Actually, the statement reportedly made by Yakan, could be construed as a direct threat against UNIFIL, consistent with Syria's threat, and also indicates that the issue here is Syria's attack on the tribunal.

So far, about 19 Fateh al-Islam members have been killed, and at least one has been arrested. The Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces are mobilized and moving in. They busted an apartment being used by Fateh al-Islam, which was stocked with weapons, probably intended for other terrorist activities in Lebanon. Indeed, Walid Jumblat said in a statement that he fears that this development may be the prelude for more acts of destabilization in Lebanon [by Syria], and urged the Palestinians to lift all cover for these groups.

Here's where we might, and should, see a historic decision in Lebanon. Unlike the late 60s and 70s, there seems to be a political cover as well as a Palestinian cover from the original Fateh, expressed just now by Saad Hariri in a press conference, for the Army to battle this movement, which he described as "terrorist."

Assad is reading from his father's book, but circumstances have changed, and so these plays are no longer working like they used to. Bashar had gone after the Christian areas, then the Druze (and failed both times), and now he might be trying the Palestinian-Islamist card, esp. since it has broader regional significance.

Put briefly, Syria now has no more credible Sunnis in Lebanon (not to mention Druze and Christians). As such, its ability to maneuver and determine outcome has diminished significantly. It still possesses tools of violence, which it's using left and right, but even there, their political value is not paying off the way it used to for Assad Sr. It will fail, and one more card will be lost, highlighting just how much weaker Syria has become in Lebanon. Bit by bit, its cards in Lebanon will lose their value. No one will "invite" Syria to put out the fire it has started in Lebanon the way they did in the past. Everyone knows that Syria is the source of instability. Well, almost everyone.

The tribunal is coming, regardless.

Update: An explosion from a car bomb in the Christian town of Ashrafieh just moments ago injured a few people and reportedly killed one. This on the same day as the clashes in the North. Explosions in Ashrafieh had been the modus operandi since 2005.

I'm somehow reminded of the person who said they were going to Damascus in "friendship and hope" and "determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace."

And somehow, Allahpundit is also reminded of the same: "So now you see how “productive” Pelosi’s — and Rice’s — outreach to Damascus has been."