On the edge of civil war?

By George Emile Irani (for Safe Democracy)

George Emile Irani writes on the current conflict in Lebanon between Salafists and the Lebanese army, placing the blame on the failing political regimes that allowed the extremists to take root. In Irani‘s opinion, these newly formed Sunni radical groups will pose a major challenge to UNIFIL’s mission in Lebanon, to the dominance of Hezbollah and Hamas, and to the stability of the entire region.

George Emile Irani is the Lebanese-born director of the Africa and Middle East Program of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. He is the author of “The Papacy and the Middle East: The Role of the Holy See in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”.

CURRENT EVENTS IN LEBANON should not be surprising to those who follow Lebanese and Middle Eastern affairs.

Trends and forecasts in the region predict a hot summer. And although regional wars were the norm in 2006, this year internal war has reared its ugly head, making an Israeli attack on Lebanon, or a US attack on Iran much less likely than internecine conflict in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. The international climate has changed.

It must be recognized that the political regimes and ideologies of the Arab Middle East have failed. The region has become riddled with dictators, clinging to power with force and the fear of extremist Salafist groups. The Palestinian body politic is in shambles. Months after the optimistic foundation of a Coalition government, Fatah, Hamas, and the entire PLO apparatus have lost their grip on the various militias and groups roaming around Gaza.

In Lebanon, the pro-Western government, headed by Fuad Siniora, has become paralyzed by the increasingly polarized political climate. Not only has Hezbollah posed a massive obstacle to democratic consolidation, but the Syrian backed Christian politician, General Michel Aoun, has also openly opposed Siniora’s leadership. Aoud is being backed by the Assad regime of Damascus in an attempt to thwart the imminent creation of an international tribunal to investigate the Hariri assassination.

But the opposition should not take all of the blame for the current instability. Responsibility should also fall on the shoulders of the Lebanese Government and its intelligence service. The government has been well aware of the presence of these groups in Lebanon for sometime. As far back as 2001 the Lebanese army clashed with Salafists not too far from Tripoli (a city populated by a majority of Sunni Muslims).

Responsibility for the current crisis should also be placed on the shoulders of PLO representatives in Lebanon who allowed Fatah al Islam to operate freely in the Palestinian refugee camps. There are currently 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, among whom Salafist extremism has taken root and flourished.

It is no coincidence then that current clashes between the Lebanese Army and the Salafist group Fatah al Islam are taking place. Fatah al Islam has been inspired by Al Qaeda, aided by Syrian intelligence, and financed by Saudi Arabia.

Its founder, Palestinian Shakir Al Absi, was jailed in Jordan for his involvement in the killing of a US diplomat. Following his release Al Absi left for Syria where he collaborated with Syrian intelligence. His major aim was to replace al Zarqawi, who US troops had killed in Iraq. The Al Qaeda leadership at the time had been badly damaged in Iraq. Another one of his major objectives was to Islamize the Palestinian cause, placing it at the center of the Salafist Radical agenda.

Fatah al Islam is not the only Salafist group operating in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Jund al Sham in the Ain El Hilwe camp of South Lebanon has also rallied many refugees to the extremist cause.

Events in Lebanon if not settled shortly could spill over and engulf the entire country in another civil war. The consequences could be disastrous, and could negatively affect the Spanish and other European troops participating in UNIFIL’s mission to police the Israel-Lebanon border.

And even more unexpected is the effect that the rise of Fatah al Islam and Salafist Sunni groups will have on the mainstream militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Only time will tell the consequences of this emerging Sunni challenge to the dominance of Shia extremists.

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