Across the Bay

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Assad's Reminder

NOW's editorial this morning on the terrorist bombing in Tripoli is worth quoting at length:

It may be a case of Damascus caressing with one hand and slapping with the other. Wednesday’s callous bombing in Tripoli was in all probability a reminder to the Lebanese that whatever touchy-feely vibes there might have been ahead of President Michel Sleiman’s visit to Damascus – one wrapped in the promise of a breakthrough on diplomatic relations, the fate of Lebanese detainees and talks on border demarcation – Syria still controls this neighborhood and is seeking to smash any concerted opposition to its local and regional influence.

Any real concessions would stick in the Syrian throat, and already the signals are that nothing but a patina of pomp will define the visit. This should come as no surprise to anyone (except maybe French President Nicolas Sarkozy) who has been following the Baathist apparatus at work since April 2005. Simply put, Syria’s goal is the reassertion of its control over Lebanon, this time as part of a regional axis with Iran, and a well-armed Hezbollah and its allies doing its bidding.

At the time of writing there have been no claims of responsibility, but in the sectarian tinderbox that is Tripoli, people will have already made up their own minds. In such a volatile country, what better place to create chaos by creating an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust? What better time to divide the multitudinous Sunnis of the North’s major city? What better time to accuse the state of being weak by implying a lapse in security? What better time to raise the specter of the so-called Sunni threat by accusing the northern Salafists of the bombing? What better time even to consider intervention in the name of regional security?

The Russians are the current pace setters. They have reminded the Georgians in no uncertain terms that they are still the regional superpower, and even Tbilisi’s close ties with the West – Georgia is on the verge of NATO membership – cannot apparently save it from the Kremlin’s formidable war machine. Why then, should Lebanon, a minnow on the world stage, be spared similar intimidation by its own overbearing neighbor, Syria, on the eve of what is supposedly a new page in Lebanese-Syrian relations?

The bomb at one of Tripoli’s busiest bus stops, like the Ain Aalaq bombing in January 2007, was designed to strike without warning at rush hour. There can be no greater weapon with which to spread fear among an urban population, but what is more sinister is the possibility that, in hinting at the prospect of an Iraq-in-Lebanon scenario, the West might be tempted to turn to anyone, including Damascus, to nip it in the bud.

Along similar lines, Walid Jumblat said the following today:

This explosion confirms that any support for the obscurantist currents by any local or external side will inevitably lead to cloning the Iraqi experience in Lebanon, and we can do without the Awakening Councils and such, because the Army is the only party responsible for security, and this mission requires unconditional support from all the political forces, so that Tripoli can avoid becoming another south Ossetia.

The Syrians and Hezbollah made sure to first undercut local confidence in the Army in the Sunni community (which is something they didn't foresee when they tried Nahr al-Bared and Fateh Islam, but they've since adjusted), before turning it up in Tripoli once again.

Here one cannot help but recall what Nawaf Musawi said not long ago in June when he threatened Saudi Arabia and the Future Movement on the subject of Islamists. Threats like that make you really wonder just how much of a deliberate plan this is, given how the Syrians have pushed relentlessly on that angle, and in Tripoli, since at least 2006, Fathi Yakan and Fateh Islam being just a couple of examples. A much more recent example is the attack against the Lebanese Army in Abdeh, in the north, a few weeks ago. It's all part of the same continuum of Syrian statements in the North. As Muhammad Salam said at the time of the Abdeh attack, and Muhammad Safadi said today, this is aimed at creating a confrontation between the Sunnis of the north and the Lebanese Army. It also aims to create a chasm in the Sunni community and between it and the rest of March 14, and deal a blow to Hariri's Future Movement (as Syria's flacks paint him to the West as simultaneously an al-Qaeda promoter and an unreliable sorcerer's apprentice), which were the exact goals of the Fateh Islam/Fathi Yakan fiasco in 2006. Just ask Sy Hersh, who actively participated in that info ops on behalf of the Syrian regime.

This is a continuation of the Assad regime's open war on Lebanon's Sunnis, and through them, on Lebanon's fragile independence for which they are a central pillar. That was the point of Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005, it remains so today.

Addendum: For a history of how Syria manipulated violence in Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in the past, read Marius Deeb's account, which I had referenced here.