At long last, the fight between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared came to an end. After a withering three months, the Army finally managed to defeat the few hundred militants holed up inside, albeit at a steep price. One hundred sixty-three soldiers were killed during the siege, a surprisingly high number for the relatively small force.
The celebrated “victory” against Fatah al-Islam (now referred to by the government after months of intense battle as just a “gang”) was anything but. The mere length of time it took to re-take the camp and the losses incurred as a result belie such a ridiculous description. The events which transpired outside Tripoli instead serve as a potent reminder of the lethality of this enemy. Indeed, the opening salvo of what may be called The Battle of the Camps has been launched.
Of all the ironies and paradoxes that constitute Lebanon, one of the greatest is that Fatah al-Islam was brought into the country – not by the Syrians, not by the Iranians – but by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the March 14 parliamentary coalition of Saad Hariri, son of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. For those who remain incredulous of this assertion as first reported by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, a basic understanding of the current geopolitical alliances in the region give it credence.
The wealthy Rafiq Hariri was especially close to the Saudi royal family and ties between the two countries were strong during his rule. It is also Saudi Arabia, in one fashion or another, which has been the primary sponsor or financial backer of most of the radical Salafi groups operating in Iraq and beyond. As divisions in the Middle East fall more and more along sectarian lines, the regional alliance of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt as representatives of Sunni Islam, has strengthened. This not only to stem Iran, but Iraq, where the majority Shia have finally come to power after centuries of (often harsh) Sunni rule, and Hezbollah.
Under the leadership of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, it is Hezbollah which has most challenged the nature of the power structure of the Middle East, aptly represented by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and (King) Mubarak of Egypt. Also included are Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hariri’s successor, Fouad Siniora. All enjoy the perks and privileges of servants of the United States and indirectly, Israel.
To undermine Hezbollah, radical anti-Shia groups like Fatah al-Islam were invited into Lebanon (or let out of its prisons) by the current Lebanese government, with the junior Hariri calling on old friends in Saudi Arabia for assistance. But deals with devils often do not go as planned; hence the outbreak of violence in Nahr al-Bared. But similarly-minded organizations remain sprinkled throughout the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, including its largest, Ain al-Hilwah, located near Sidon in southern Lebanon. In it, the extremist group Asbat al-Ansar resides.
Attacks against UNIFIL troops there are likely at the hands of these Sunni militant outfits. In the case of Asbat al-Ansar, they have conveniently taken up residence in the Shia-dominated part of the country under the protection of the camps, where the government is prohibited from entering by law. Most others function as true “sleeper cells,” slowly recruiting and stoking resentment amongst Palestinians in the teeming camps, where unemployment, poverty and desperation also have found sanctuary.
So when will these sleeper cells awake?
It is quite predictable actually. As the United States war drums beat louder and louder against Iran, expect these Saudi, Jordanian and Lebanese hired guns to agitate against Hezbollah, almost on cue. For if there is to be a war against Iran, there will also be a simultaneous one by proxy against Hezbollah.
The saga of The Battle of Camps has just begunand you may not have long to wait before reading Chapter 2.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.