US supplies Lebanese Army for fight against Fatah al-Islam

American involvement underscores complexity of Lebanese politics, intra-Arab conflicts.

By , Staff writer

The United States and its Arab allies have entered into the fray in northern Lebanon, sending several planeloads of supplies to the Lebanese Army, currently locked in a standoff with Islamic militants in a Palestinian refugee camp.

The Associated Press reports that ammunition and other supplies began arriving in Beirut Friday for the Lebanese Army's ongoing battle against Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.

Although U.S. officials said the military aid to Lebanon had been agreed to before the fighting broke out this week, the speedy shipment Friday marked the first tangible U.S. backing of the Lebanese authorities' fight with the militants.

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By early afternoon Friday, a total of five military transport planes landed at the Beirut airport, including one from the U.S. Air Force, two from the Emirates' air force and two Royal Jordanian Air Force planes. Both Jordan and Emirates are close U.S. allies.

The United States involvement in the battle between the army of Lebanon, a nation roughly 60% Muslim and 40% Christian, and Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants underscores the complexities of intra-Arab relationships in the Middle East. The tiny nation, 0.7 times the size of Connecticut, contains many elements that sparked the larger region's conflicts: rival religions, a substantial Palestinian refugee population, and regional powers with a stake in local politics.

In an analysis of Lebanon's current crisis, which includes the effect on Lebanon of efforts to set up an international tribunal to investigate the killing of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (who many Lebanese believe was assassinated by Syrian agents), the BBC writes that Lebanon's complex mix of religious sects, many with ties abroad, "baffles outsiders," and that "even people in the Middle East find its politics confusing."

It has 18 officially recognised religious sects and sharing power between them has always been a complicated game. Lebanese Muslims have tended to look east for support from the other Arab states and from Iran. The Christians have tended to look west to Europe and the United States.

The country's proximity to Israel - and the presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees on its soil - mean it is also intimately tied to the Arab-Israeli dispute. While Lebanon has plenty of problems of its own, it has also become the arena where many of the region's conflicts and rivalries are played out.

The Economist writes that despite the lack of any overt Syrian involvement in the battle at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, many Lebanese see Damascus's hand in the clash.

Government officials charge that Syria, which ended a 29-year military presence in Lebanon only in 2005, is sowing such strife in a bid to regain its power-broking role. Another alleged Syrian aim is to block the setting up of an international tribunal to try suspects in a string of political murders beginning with the assassination in February 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a five-times Lebanese prime minister. With the pro-Syrian opposition refusing to back a law to create the court, the UN Security Council is now debating whether to establish it under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which could mandate sanctions against countries that refuse to co-operate.

Syria adamantly denies any link to the murders or to the current violence. Yet it is true that at the time of Hariri's killing he was trying to rally political forces to challenge Syria's dominance. Mass protests after his death shamed Syria into withdrawing its troops but it left in place many forces that concur with Syria's view of Lebanon as a bulwark against Western influence. Bar last summer's war, when Israeli bombs ravaged Shia areas, nearly all political violence since the Syrian withdrawal has targeted anti-Syrian activists.

Whether or not Syria has a hand in Lebanon's current spate of violence, the fighting between Palestinian militant group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army demonstrates how Lebanon has been affected by fallout from other regional conflicts. The country has at least 400,000 Palestinians, most of them refugees from the1948 Arab-Israeli War. "Many are crowded into 12 impoverished and often violent camps, banned from all but menial jobs and mostly living off U.N. aid," reports The Associated Press in an Q&A about the current violence.

Many experts have charged that conditions in the camps have long been largely responsible for perpetuating the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon's current strife, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the camps were the breeding ground for Palestinian militants in Lebanon and Jordan determined to win back their homes in Israel. The Palestinian factions grew increasingly powerful, and their cross-border attacks created problems for their host governments. In 1970, the Jordanian Army clashed with Palestinian militants and thousands were ejected from the country, joining their comrades in Lebanon.

The growing influence of the mainly Sunni Palestinian armed factions upset Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance and was a factor that led to the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Israel invaded Lebanon twice in the next seven years to drive the Palestinian militants out of Lebanon.

Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the Palestinians have been confined to their 12 established refugee camps, which are ringed by Lebanese troops and whose entrances are tightly controlled.

The ongoing crisis in Lebanon also marks the difficulty in achieving the goal of pan-Arab unity popularized by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. Mr. Nasser hoped for a united Arab nation that would span from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf. But while the vision captivated Arabs during the ensuing decades, Nasserism, Arab unity, is now looked upon nostalgically as an old dream, rather than a realistic possibility. As the Lebanese military struggles to regain control of the situation, voices now urge for unity simply within their small country. "Unity saves the Lebanese people and their Palestinian brothers who came to them by force to live here because of the closed doors to their homeland," said an editorial in Lebanon's As Safir.

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