You aren’t hearing about it in the Western media, but the truce agreement reached last month in Doha, Qatar, between the Lebanese government and the Hezbollah-led opposition is no more operative than the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Fighting broke out in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunni supporters of the “March 14” majority bloc in parliament and gunmen from the Alawite sect loyal to the Syrian Baath regime and Hezbollah. We’re not talking about street brawling here. Machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades were deployed. Several houses and a gas station were burned to the ground. Ten people were killed and at least 52 people were wounded.
One of Lebanon’s few pro-Syrian Sunni leaders, Omar Karami (he was prime minister during the Syrian occupation), said the Doha agreement was only a “temporary truce because historical grudges still exist.” [Emphasis added.] He is right about that much, at least. Historical grudges most certainly do still exist, even if the ceasefire doesn’t.
Rifaat Eid, who represents Lebanese Alawites, claims radical Sunni remnants from the terrorist group Fatah al Islam were involved. “Armed groups from outside the region come to Bab al-Tabbaneh, open fire in our direction and leave,” he said. “The fighting was premeditated given the kind of weapons, their quantity, and the Islamic extremist factions that are joining the fighters . . . Is Fatah al Islam gone? I doubt it.”
Eid is a somewhat dubious source, and there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in Lebanese politics. Fatah al Islam is a tool of the Syrians, as is Eid. But Fatah al Islam does still exist, and this is exactly the kind of thing that should be expected of them.
According to the Kuwaiti newspaper Alseyassah, “unnamed sources” claim Syrian officers led the battle on the Alawite side. Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t. Unnamed sources can’t be trusted in Western newspapers, let alone in less professional newspapers in the Arab world, but there’s a chance this is actually true. Many Lebanese Alawites really are supporters of the Syrian Baath regime, which itself is dominated by the minority Alawite sect. Allegations of direct cooperation may be untrue, but the idea isn’t crazy.
Eid is right to doubt that Fatah al Islam is gone. And just because they’re a tool of the Syrian state doesn’t mean they side with Hezbollah. This is a gang of radical Sunnis who adhere to the political ideology of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda really does despise Shias along with Jews, Americans, and everyone else on their hate list. Fatah al Islam is based in Lebanon, but most members are not even Lebanese. Their leader Shaker al Abssi is Palestinian, and its ranks are made up of Arab radicals from all over the place.
Abssi just released a message describing Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah as a “mini Khomeini.” “If the war against the Jews has begun,” he said, “as the head of the devil’s party, the mini Khomeini, claims – why did he forbid those who do not belong to his party from participating in the July War?”
Tripoli isn’t the only city in Lebanon that is still deeply troubled. “Sectarianism is the highest I have ever seen it,” Charles Malik wrote from Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal. “Many older residents of Beirut believe the discord between Lebanese sects is the greatest they have ever seen in their lifetimes.”
And as it turns out, no one dares take down some of the posters placed in Beirut by Hezbollah and their allies in Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. “In some of the areas that witnessed clashes,” Abu Kais wrote at From Beirut to the Beltway, “giant posters of rival clan leaders mark territories invaded. The faces of Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri are everywhere Amal and Hizbullah planted a flag during the May assault. Their posters are offensive, and so are their politics, which if you care to follow, makes you want to never set foot in the city again… How do you go to what used to be your favorite gadget store when it sits in the shadow of a huge Nasrallah banner?”
When I first started visiting Lebanon, in the twilight of the Syrian occupation, it was a place full of optimism and hope. The Prague Spring must have felt something like that before it was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks.