Fundamentalism brings no benefits to Syria

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The "blame Syria" game is in full swing again as the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared succumbs slowly and painfully to a battle begun a couple of months ago. Under shelling by an increasingly desperate Lebanese army–that is overwhelmed by the loss of over 100 soldiers as it tries to defeat the obscure militant group of Fateh al-Islam and is taking untold Palestinian civilian casualties in the process–the crumbling camp continues to harbor militants of various nationalities as different theories about their origins and their sponsors are proffered.

Pan-Arab, Saudi and Lebanese media backing the government of Fouad Siniora have been adamant about the Syrian connection, reporting the alleged confessions of captured militants who spilled the beans about their close ties to the highest echelons of the Syrian regime in astonishingly detailed accounts reminiscent of the first Mehlis report. In order to destabilize Lebanon even further, according to sources unbothered with the burden of proof, the Syrians planned and executed the entire succession of events in Tripoli, after having financed and armed Fateh al-Islam. Syria, already implicated in the financial, logistical and political support of a rather wide range of actors in the region, ranging from all the constituents of the so-called "Shi’ite crescent" (including Hizballah) to the strictest Sunni radicals (including Hamas)–all of which denounced Fateh al-Islam–is thus supposedly directly behind every anti-Siniora/Hariri/Saudi/American incident, in Lebanon, Iraq and els! ewhere.

In fact, the attempted "Syrianization" of all regional trouble-making elements is experiencing such a surge of its own that known journalists, writing in Saudi media, are now even trying to re-brand international enemy number one, Osama Bin Laden, as not really Saudi since his mother is Syrian.

Even though some would argue that Lebanon was unstable enough for Syria’s taste as it is, unverified hypotheses implicating Syria in the Nahr al-Bared standoff are by no means impossible. After all, there is no reason why the Syrian regime can’t be as miscalculating and as unwise as the British (initial sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterforce to undesirable Arabism), the Israelis (crucial backers of the creation of Hamas, which was supposed to counterbalance inconveniently popular secular Palestinian militants) or the Americans (trainers, cheer leaders and chief financiers of the Mujahideen, of future al-Qaeda fame, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). Indeed, promoters of religious fundamentalism as a tool against the villain of the day have acted at their own peril, subsequently paying the price for such selfish folly. The various supporters of Siniora are no exception, especially as the pillars on which the Lebanese government leans (notably Saudi Arabia) have been directly involved in such gambles.

Some observers have presented theories conflicting with the anti-Syrian narrative. Whether to gather support during election time or to challenge Shi’ite groups, the Hariri movement–with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and the US–has allegedly courted Sunni Islamists in northern Lebanon and directly financed groups in Tripoli and Akkar. If true, it is not clear why the whole scheme backfired, but financing problems have been mentioned as issues of contention in addition to the unforeseen radicalization of the groups.

Competing speculations notwithstanding, the Lebanese state and the Lebanese army have proven themselves to be impotent in the face of adversity resulting from foreign meddling and assault, or from internal disturbance and insurgence. From a strategic point of view, regardless of its own involvement or lack thereof, this initially favors the Syrian regime as it attempts to re-impose its weight on the Lebanese arena. Seen from Damascus, the freeze in the political process (a freeze to which Syria was a major contributor) and the incapacity of the Lebanese state to defend itself during successive confrontations (first with Israel in 2006, and now with al-Qaeda inspired groups) have reinforced the official Syrian argument for a strong affiliation between the two countries. A weak Lebanese state without Syria’s "protection" is counter-productive to Damascus and creates risky challenges.

While any incident weakening the hand of Saad Hariri’s movement can only be good news for the Syrians at the moment, there are clear dangers to the trend of fundamentalist groups starting to take matters into their own hands. This is an issue that the Syrian regime should find worrying, especially as religion-based extremist ideologies are spreading on either side of the Syrian borders. Syria has so far been spared such unrest and the often resulting carnage, but there is no guarantee that the borders, even closed, will protect it from a flood of eager fundamentalists for whom the Syrian regime is ultimately an ideological foe. Whether or not they are involved (and a number of credible sources say they are not), the Syrians would be foolish to take comfort in the unfolding events, lest similar attempts spread on home turf. True, the Syrian army and the state’s infrastructure are much better prepared to deal with potential turmoil. But reaching such a state of affairs would u! ndoubtedly shake the country, especially after one and a half million Iraqis have taken refuge in Syria, creating tensions that could eventually transcend the economic and social realm and enter the even more dangerous whirlwind of sectarianism and communalism.

The deja vu scenario of lighting extremist fires to score points against opponents creates only losers; this is a maxim that all regimes meddling in Lebanon should remember.

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First published by BitterLemons-International.org

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