An eerie silence, punctuated by the occasional distant rattle of machine gun fire, descended very briefly on the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon Wednesday, June 6, after 22 days of heavy fighting and more than 115 dead.
The Lebanese army was nursing its wounds having suffering an estimated 60 dead and 600 injured without achieving a breakthrough against the uprising in the camp. By then, the pro-Syrian coalition fighting alongside the Fatah al-Islam which instigated the uprising outnumbered the Islamic radicals.
Thursday saw a resumption of the fighting.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Beirut report the guns were silenced temporarily in the northern refugee camp and Ain al Hilwa in the south, the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon, by an undeclared time-out granted by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He was giving the hodgepodge of Palestinian factions fighting the Lebanese army a chance to sort out their internal disputes.
Siniora had slapped down an ultimatum: Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared must surrender; nothing less was acceptable. In return, the Palestinian fighters who had rallied to its aid from outside Lebanon would be extradited to their respective countries of residence, mainly Syria.
This the Islamist radicals flatly refused.
The resulting deadlock is complicated by differences among the Palestinian factions, most supported by Damascus, about how to handle the ultimatum.
The mainstream Fatah headed by Mahmoud Abbas and two of the Syrian-backed groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – PFLP and Naif Hawatme‘s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – DFLP, want to forcibly root the hardcore Fatah al-Islam out of the Nahr al-Bared camp.
Victory over pro-Syrian Palestinians eludes Siniora
Fellow jihadists, Hamas and Jihad Islami, as well as Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command – PFLP-GC, oppose military action against Fatah al-Islam. They favor a ceasefire with the Lebanese army.
The Siniora government is adamantly opposed to any “ceasefire deal with terrorists”, according to a Beirut source. Either they surrender or the Lebanese army fights them to the last man.
These comings and goings dodge around the main issues:
1. The Lebanese army has failed to subdue the uprisings in the Palestinian camps of Nahr al Bared and Ain Hilwa – or even break through to their interior.
2. The ten-day US airlift of ammo, armored vehicles and missiles for busting fortifications, assisted by the UAE, Jordan and Egypt, failed to produce a Lebanese victory.
3. The Syrian input of weapons and trained manpower was more effective; they reached their destination through local pro-Syrian middlemen more speedily than the American hardware. The weapons were tailored to combat incoming US armaments.
4. Siniora had to climb down from his ultimatum that the battle would go on until the last fighter surrendered or was killed.
5. The UN observer force was in no position to halt the spread of hostilities to the South, the smuggling of large quantities of weapons into Lebanon or the insidious intervention of al Qaeda-linked elements.
As we reported in Issue 303 on June 1, these developments have far-reaching repercussions – not only for Lebanon but the Middle East as a whole.
Syrian president Bashar Assad has gained another tactical victory in his violent campaign to derail the international tribunal set up by the UN Security Council last week to prosecute the assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
He has also promoted himself senior determinant alongside Iran in major Middle East conflicts, such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Assad determines to seize control of Palestinian camps
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources, Assad and visiting Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki spent three days in Damascus discussing this and related topics from May 31 to June 2.
They decided on two follow-up steps to cash in on Damascus’ success in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps:
Syria must make its allies in the Palestinian camps strong enough to beat down and swallow up Mahmoud Abbas’ mainstream Fatah faction – for one.
Damascus’ surrogates must be employed for a campaign of terror against the UN observer force in southern Lebanon – for another.
Damascus and Tehran are resolved to push the UN force out in the coming months or at least make the peacekeepers abandon their policing functions for fear of showing their faces outside their bases. This will be achieved by planting bombs on their patrol routes, at the gates of their camps and around their favorite haunts and resorts.
Wednesday, June 6, a small explosive device with timer was discovered in a can of baby food and defused not far from a beach resort popular with the international troops near the port-town of Tyre.
For the Syrian ruler, UNIFIL is both foe and impediment. He has a big bone to pick with the world body over the Hariri tribunal, but the mostly European contingents are also in the way of his plan to raise tensions against Israel on the Syrian Golan and Lebanese borders.
For the latter, he wants to give Hizballah a clear shot at Israel, which means ejecting the UN peacekeepers.