It’s unfortunate that the sigh of relief heaved by the Lebanese at the end of last summer’s war between Israel and the Hezbollah has proved to be so short-lived. Lebanon seems to be on the brink again, as the standoff between the Lebanese army and radical Islamists entrenched in a Palestinian refugee camp continues. In what has been the bloodiest internal strife since the civil war of 1975-90, the violence has claimed scores of lives and threatens to make Lebanon another flashpoint in a region that is already in crisis.
The clashes began when security forces stormed a flat in Tripoli, following leads that tied some bank robberies to a terrorist group called Fatah al-Islam. The militants retaliated by attacking army posts around the refugee camp. The government has a point in blaming Syria for the recent bombings, bank robberies, and attacks on Lebanese troops by Fatah al-Islam, in a so-called “campaign of destabilisation”. For given the murky world of Lebanese politics, Syrian manipulation of groups like the Fatah al-Islam can never be ruled out. Especially since Damascus probably wouldn’t mind deflecting attention from the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, in which Syrian officials are implicated. The pro-Syrian opposition in Lebanon evidently doesn’t want to help with the investigation, and this could possibly lead to the Security Council slapping sanctions on Syria. With the Syrian-backed opposition parties constantly snapping at its heels, the Western-backed government in Beirut obviously faces an existential threat. Which makes it all the more difficult for the government to check the growing influence of radical Islam in Lebanon’s refugee camps.
That said, however, the government must tread carefully as it tries to take out the militants and avoid indiscriminate shelling of refugee camps as happened last week. With both sides sitting on a powder keg, continued bloodshed would only play into the hands of the extremists and stir unrest among the Palestinians. It’d be a shame if the government allows a marginal group to trigger an uprising across Lebanon and destabilise the country.