Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, February 27th, 2007
A Lebanon analyst sent this note on the Hersh and Saab articles copied in the previous two posts. He prefers not to use his name. The following is his:
Allow me to add a number of comments to the fine discussion initiated by Bilal Saab on Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece.
Lebanese Sunnis Deeply Divided over Relations with Hizbullah
** First, Saab is right that Hersh misrepresents the loyalty of Sunni groups as determined by sectarian lines in Lebanon, but I disagree that Sunni fundamentalist groups want to join hands with Hizballah to fight the US and Israel. They are deeply divided on this issue. Saab slightly overstates Fathi Yakan's role and importance as a Sunni fundamentalist leader. He is certainly a good thinker/speaker/coalition-builder, and has managed to build a pro-Hezbollah umbrella group, but his authority in Tripoli, where Yakan has his support base, is contested. Granted, some Sunni groups actually want to align with Hezbollah, but others are vehemently anti-Shia, and unimpressed or supremely infuriated by Hezbollah (not just because it is Shia, but because it is also successful). Don't forget that last year, prior to the summer war, Zarqawi accused Hezbollah of protecting Israel and preventing Sunnis from resisting!!! The fact that Hezbollah sought to monopolize anti-Israeli resistance for years (note that Nasrallah recently offered to expand the resistance to other, non-Shia groups; Saab writes in his paper that Hezbollah claims that Sunni fighters assisted Hezbollah during the summer war) and the Syria-Hezbollah alliance (after all, Sunni radicals suffered greatly under Syrian hegemony) are problematic issues for some Sunni groups.
** Second, it is important to differentiate between established organizations and boutique structures. The larger groups (Tawhid, Ahbash, Yakan, Jamaa etc.) are what Saab calls Sunni fundamentalist groups. They are involved in the political game, which makes their own calculations a great deal more complex than one might think. They can derive benefits from aligning with this or that leader, they have to think about Islamic solidarity, elections, image, social services. Yakan supports Hezbollah, while the Jamaa supports Hariri. The boutique groups (or Sunni radical groups) are more complex to understand, and they are multiplying. They have their own internal dynamics, but can also act as front ends for domestic and foreign intelligence.
** Third, Hersh has a point when he says that people linked to Hariri have dealings with Sunni radicals. Hariri politicians have tried to manage and manipulate (as necessary) Sunni radicalism. They sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed. They have bailed out the Denniye prisoners, claiming that the 2000 clashes were fabricated by Syrian intelligence (this is a baseless claim). It is a game of trying to outsmart and buy off the radicals, but that there is no guarantee of success (Sunni militants are growing more radical and more emboldened), and the consequences of failure are disastrous.
But guess what? Hariri is far from being the only one to play this game. In the North, Karame, Mikati and Safadi do it too, as does former Defense Minister Mrad in the Bekaa. Karame, Mikati and Mrad are aligned with Syria, have supported Sunni radical groups in the past, and are still involved in manipulating them. Most notably, Mikati is the one who brought back Sheikh Hashem Minkara (a Sunni fundamentalist who opposed Syria in the 1980s) from his Syrian jail to Lebanon during the Summer 2000 elections in order to win the votes of Sunni Islamists – with Syrian blessing. The Syrians were probably also trying to placate Sunni Islamists after the Denniyeh clashes. Sunni politicians, whether pro or anti-Syrian (the distinction matters only from 2005 on), have showered these groups with money and attention, hoping to get their votes (I think that the Jamaa Islamiyah can count on at least 10,000 votes in the North if not more) and buy some quietness (Ironically, Christian politicians played this game too, since Tripoli was merged into one district with other Christian regions. The same thing happened in Akkar. They disbursed money, but nothing compared to their Sunni counterparts.)
** Fourth, Hersh is wrong to assert that there is an official (but
undeclared) Lebanese policy of supporting Sunni extremist groups as a way to counter Hezbollah. The allegations that Siniora's government is courting Sunni radicals disregards the simple fact that these guys don't want to deal with the government (Saab is right to write: "1- these groups are very serious about their salafist jihadist ideology: the pro-American Lebanese government is an agent of the US-Zionist alliance and must be fought, period. 2- The history of terrorism and political violence perpetrated by these groups against Lebanese interests and the Lebanese political establishment is a testament to the seriousness of their fundamental disagreements with the makeup of the Lebanese secular and confessional order") and can extract much more from politicians than the state. While possible, we need more than Hersh's reporting to ascertain that "Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government." Some government employees are certainly implicated (guess what, you are in Lebanon, where loyalties are porous); this does not necessarily mean that this is government policy.
The other side of this argument is that the ISF is the new Sunni militia with a new intelligence branch set up by a Hariri protege. This is a grave accusation (but not new – nothing in Hersh's piece breaks new ground). The argument of government officials for setting up this new intelligence branch is that military intelligence is infiltrated by pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah elements (very true) and that there is a need for an intelligence agency that reports through the chain of command. This is a dangerous game on the part of the government. But the ISF is not a militia (yet?), is still underequipped (except for their poweful cars) and ill-trained, and opposition fears might be overstated (but should certainly be addressed). Does the ISF provide support to groups like Asbat al-Ansar that military intelligence is busy containing? Possible, but again, Hersh offers no evidence.
** Fifth, and in disagreement with Saab, Sunni extremists are still wondering who their top enemy is: is it the government, UNIFIL, Israel, Hezbollah and the Shia community, the Christians? Who comes first? There is no (or maybe not yet) dominant and coherent framework that identifies all these parties as a single enemy. Sunni groups have simply too many enemies in Lebanon and limited resources, and the consequences of a strategic mistake could be disastrous. So basically, they are in the process of deciding who is going to be their next target. There are intense debates within these groups: some jihadis returning from Iraq are bitter about their experience there (either disgruntled about the whole thing or frustrated that intra-Iraqi politics constrained their actions – some recount tensions with Iraqi Sunnis), others are ready to pursue their anti-US struggle in Lebanon, others see Lebanon as a place where to export their anti-Shia agenda, and some are ready to fight UNIFIL (the irony here is that Hezbollah is probably providing intelligence and protection to UNIFIL, not because it likes UNIFIL, but because it wants to choose the timing, form and scope of any confrontation). The fact that these debates are ongoing should not be of any comfort to anyone: these groups could split over these differences and pursue their own objectives independently.
It is also difficult to know who arms and funds them. Some (not all) of the weaponry that enters the Palestinian camps (including Nahr al-Bared that Hersh talks about) is from Syrian origin (Syrian officials claim weapons are smuggled from Iraq to Lebanon without their knowledge, but there is a serious probability that Syrian intelligence itself is involved in this trafficking and arming of Palestinian groups). But the funding often comes from Arab Gulf individuals, not states (though there are rumours that states are also joining the fray). Still, I doubt that the Syrians and the Gulf Arabs are coordinating their efforts. What is interesting is the Syrian game. A measure of instability in Lebanon is good for Syria because it illustrates the 'stabilizing' role it played and that its allies in Lebanon (i.e. Hezbollah) are organized, rational and not apocalyptic like the Sunni radical groups (remember the February 2006 burning of a consulate in Achrafieh at the hands of Sunni radicals protesting the Danish cartoons). At the same time, Syria of all countries knows the risk of Sunni radicalism and is probably not behind every single one of these groups. Syria has reasons to be concerned about the jihadi problem in Lebanon to say the least.
** Sixth, for all the rumours about a massive rearmament of the various political parties in Lebanon to prepare for a civil war, the available evidence (and deduction from market prices) shows that there is a sharp increase in small weaponry, a slight increase in light weaponry and no apparent increase in heavy weaponry.
Here are the rumours that are circulating: Hariri is allegedly training his people in Jordan, Jumblatt has hired Kurdish peshmergas, the Lebanese Forces have training camps in the Christian mountains, Amal and Aoun's FPM are having their people re-trained and re-armed by Hezbollah, the Marada (Frangieh) have reopened their weapons cache in the Miziara region etc.
But there is no evidence of a major military build-up. What is taking place is ugly, but nothing on the scale of what rumours and hearsay have
it: political indoctrination camps with often overweight people trying to get back in shape by doing physical exercise and training to shoot small weapons, not a reorganization of wartime militias on a large scale. You also have politicians and businessmen dramatically increasing their bodyguard teams. One story that was played up in the news in November turned up to be a bust. Initial reports talked about 60 men armed with light and heavy weaponry training in the Kesrouan region and affiliated with the Lebanese Forces, while in reality they were 9 bodyguards of the CEO of LBC training with small licensed weapons at a site well-known by the military that had advanced knoweldge of the training session. The LAF commander published a statement to that effect, but it went unnoticed.
Just a final note on Seymour Hersh: he may be very good at researching the US side of a story and exposing bureaucratic debates and infighting over important policy issues. His research and analysis on foreign countries is less impressive.