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Potential for a new civil war in Lebanon?

Lt. Col. Rick Francona analyzes the current Lebanese-Palestinian conflict

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Lebanese army pounds militant group
May 21: The Lebanese army battles suspected al-Qaida militants at a refugee camp in Lebanon. NBC's Tom Aspell and Lt. Col. Rick Francona talk about the siege.
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A Lebanese family that live inside the P
  Bloodshed in Lebanon
Deadly clashes between Lebanese troops and Fatah Islam, a shadowy group believed linked to al-Qaida, take toll on soldiers, militants and civilians alike.

Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

For two days now, Lebanese army troops have been shelling the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli.  The government of Fouad Siniora claims that an al-Qaida-inspired group calling itself Fatah al-Islam is holed up inside the camp; elements of the Lebanese Army have been dispatched to take on the group.

Fatah al-Islam is a fundamentalist Muslim breakaway faction of a pro-Syrian group, declaring itself operational in November 2006.  Its direct ties to al-Qaida are tenuous at best; the leader of Fatah al-Islam is linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed last year.  Both Fatah al-Islam leader Shakir al-Abbsi and al-Zarqawi were convicted for the 2002 murder of American diplomat in Jordan.

A Syrian connection?
The Lebanese government claims the group has ties to Syrian intelligence.  If true, this likely means ties to Syrian military intelligence, long charged with managing Syrian interests in Lebanon.  American counterterrorism analysts are not sure of this connection.  Of course, Syria denies any connection.

Assuming a Syrian connection, why would Syria want to provoke a fight between the Lebanese Army and a Palestinian Islamist group in northern Lebanon? 

Let’s look at Syria’s current situation.  A United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri implicated Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials.  President Siniora has come under increasing Syrian pressure not to approve a tribunal to try the accused perpetrators.  Following Syria’s withdrawal of its military force and claimed withdrawal of intelligence officers from Lebanon, there have been a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian political leaders.  The Fatah al-Islam group was implicated in one of these attacks earlier this year.

Syria wants to re-establish its previous dominant position in Lebanon.  It has always regarded Lebanon as in its sphere of influence and has sought to control events in the country.  Increased violence may result in the Lebanese recalling the days of pax Syriana when thousands of Syrian troops kept the peace.  A deteriorating situation in Lebanon plays into Syrian interests.


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