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Lebanon's Fires Burn Anew

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: May 23, 2007

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Last summer the world watched in shock as Israel fought a month-long campaign against Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon. With the aftershocks of that conflict still rippling throughout the region, it appears Lebanon could be in for another bloody summer. The latest outbreak of violence features a new cast of combatants, headlined by the recently coalesced terrorist group Fatah al-Islam, an offshoot of a Syrian-backed Palestinian group based in several refugee camps in Lebanon. On May 20, Lebanese security forces met stiff resistance when raiding a Fatah al-Islam building north of Tripoli. The ensuing violence (CNN) represents the worst internal fighting in Lebanon since the end of that country’s civil war in 1990. On May 21 Lebanese forces pounded (IHT) parts of the troublesome Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. Violence soon spread to Beirut as two large bombs detonated (Daily Star) in the city’s center. Fatah al-Islam claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The Lebanese media quickly pointed an accusing finger (BBC) toward Syria. Most experts believe Syria’s hand was behind the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The timing did not go unnoticed, either: The latest outbreak of fighting comes just days after the United States and its allies circulated a UN Security Council resolution calling for a tribunal (Jurist) to try Hariri’s killers. Earlier this month Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote an editorial in an Arabic-language Lebanese paper calling for Lebanon to support such a tribunal. CFR Mideast expert Steven A. Cook says in this podcast that Syria continues to meddle in Lebanon’s affairs, though Syria denies all such charges.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that at the root of this episode lies Lebanon’s inability to control its territory. Indeed, Lebanon’s weak government could face an existential threat as it wrestles to contain the growing influence of radical Islam in its refugee camps. Beirut’s leadership has barely weathered massive protests by opposition parties clamoring for a stronger voice in the government. That opposition includes Hezbollah, a Syrian client which has developed of late into something of an Iranian proxy. But Fatah al-Islam appears to have ties to other notorious international figures, too. The group’s leader, Shaker al-Abssi (AP), was convicted alongside slain al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for the 2002 murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan. German officials accused Abssi’s group of plotting in 2006 to bomb German commuter trains: One of the suspects in that case was killed in a gun battle (Deutsche Welle) with Lebanese forces Sunday.

Lebanon’s Daily Star declares the country cannot allow onslaught by such a “marginal” group to destabilize the country. But instability is an end in itself for this type of insurgent group. As New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “guerrilla insurgencies are increasingly able to take on and defeat nation-states.” Partly as a result, many experts, including CFR President Richard N. Haass, believe Washington’s ability to influence events in the Middle East is waning

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