Across the Bay

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Assad's Trap in Tripoli

To follow up on my previous post, read Michael Young's entire column in the Daily Star. Note especially the analysis about the actual (as opposed to hyped) size of the Salafists in the north:

Like the attack against a military intelligence office in Abdeh several weeks ago, the aim of those placing the bombs was to convince you and I that Sunni extremist groups are alive and well in the North, that they have an axe to grind with the army because of Nahr al-Bared
The reality, I believe, is different. Recently, colleagues who closely follow events in Tripoli have started hearing of Syrian warnings to the Lebanese that there would be no peace in the city until the Salafists were routed. Who would conduct such an operation but the army, explaining why soldiers have been the victims of recent attacks. Syria's implication in the bombings is highly probable, its objective being to push the army and the Salafists into a confrontation. This would create a serious rift within the Sunni community, weaken the disoriented pro-Hariri forces in Tripoli, and allow Damascus' allies to regain the initiative in the city.

The reality is that Salafists in Tripoli are not strong. In the recent fighting between the Sunni quarters of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, the Salafists, who belong to a variety of small groups, proved to be much less numerous than anyone had imagined. As a neighborhood leader in Bab al-Tebbaneh described it, the confrontations exposed the Salafists' weaknesses, not their strengths. The brunt of the fighting was borne by the men of Bab al-Tebbaneh, though followers of a leading opposition politician used the hostilities to burnish his legitimacy as a "defender of the Sunnis." The Alawite official Rifaat Eid admitted that the fighting erupted after a rocket propelled grenade was fired at his men by partisans of this opposition politician.
It was no coincidence, either, that the bombing occurred on the day of Michel Sleiman's visit to Damascus. There were several messages to the president: that Lebanese security will continue to remain vulnerable if he opposes Syrian priorities (and that includes, among other things, Syrian choices for the post of army commander and military intelligence chief); that Sleiman's priorities, in turn, such as addressing diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus and the fate of Lebanese prisoners in Syria, are secondary to the Syrians; that intimidation remains Syria's modus operandi when it comes to its relationship with Lebanon; and that Sleiman would make a mistake to rely too much on the parliamentary majority, which is buttressed by a Sunni community that can be readily split.
The bus bombing yesterday ultimately targeted not the army but the Sunnis. Syria wants them irredeemably divided. Hariri must ensure that such a plan fails.

The opposition politician in question, I believe, is Omar Karami. There were also reports from Lebanon that Najib Miqati's men were also involved in the fighting against Jabal Mohsen, and he has been recruiting former Tawhid cadres. This is what the NOW Lebanon editorial cited in my previous post calls the "multitudinous Sunnis" in Tripoli. The reality in the north is very complex, as Young describes (especially when he briefly lists some of the factions and their backers).

Never mind the caricatures of the Syrian regime flacks and other clueless dilettantes or self-serving hacks. That's propaganda and water carrying, not analysis.