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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Apr 15th
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Analysis arrow Syria’s Palestinian Soldiers in Lebanon
Syria’s Palestinian Soldiers in Lebanon PDF Print E-mail
Written by Walid Phares and Robert Rabil   
Sunday, 16 September 2007

Walid Phares and Robert Rabil
Walid Phares and Robert Rabil

By Robert Rabil and Walid Phares: As the Lebanese army has successfully concluded the fierce battle against the radical Islamist party Fatah al-Islam in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared, it nevertheless faces growing threats from other radical movements that mushroomed in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. More specifically, the army is threatened by Palestinian radical organizations supported, trained and armed by the Syrian regime, which utilizes these organizations as proxy instruments to leverage the Lebanese government. The Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah Intifadah stand at the forefront of these organizations. Dealing with them has become an immediate challenge to the Lebanese government because it has faced a pro-Syrian Hizbollah-led opposition adamant about bringing about its collapse and electing a pro-Syrian president in the upcoming presidential elections. The constitution allows a timeframe from September 25 to November 23 to conclude the presidential elections. 

Dismantling these organizations and by extension Syrian leverage in Lebanon is not an easy process given that the Syrian regime has not only nursed and cultivated the Palestinian leadership of these organizations, but also has strengthened their military capabilities. The late ruler of Syria Hafez al-Asad strongly disliked and mistrusted the PLO leadership of Yasser Arafat. Believing that the undisciplined and tactless PLO could provoke haphazard problems for Syria especially with Israel, Asad tried to control the decision making process of the Palestinian movement by creating his own military arms within the movement. This systemic policy which was hammered out mainly on Lebanese soil proved beneficial to Asad as he tried to extend his hegemony over Lebanon. Consequently, notwithstanding playing one Palestinian faction against another to undermine the authority of Arafat in the camps, Asad managed during his occupation of Lebanon to control and create Palestinian camps not only to serve his hegemonic policy in Lebanon, but also to fend off Islamist threats to his homeland.

In 1966, following its seizure of power, the neo-Ba’th Syrian regime supported Ahmad Jibril’s Palestine Liberation Front as an instrument of Syria’s military intelligence. The regime then tried to co-opt Fath, Arafat’s militant organization before he became chairman of the PLO, by indirectly trying to merge Ahmad Jibril’s diminutive group with Fath. As the Syrian scheme failed, then Defense Minister Asad imprisoned the leadership of the Fath including Arafat. In 1967 the Syrian regime created the first Ba’thist Palestinian commando force, as-Sai’qah, to compete with Fath. At the same time, Asad tried to undermine Fath by undercutting its base of support first in Jordan and then in Lebanon. In July 1971, Asad, by then president of Syria, prevented Fath guerrilla forces based near Der’a in southern Syria from assisting their comrades in their last holdouts in northern Jordan as they came under ruthless air and artillery attacks by the Jordanian army. Hundreds of Fath supporters and members were killed.

Subsequently, the PLO moved its headquarters to Lebanon, which hosted over a dozen of Palestinian refugee camps throughout the country. The most populous of these camps became hotbeds for militant and terror activities and safe havens for criminals because the Lebanese authorities were prevented from entering these camps under an arrangement brokered by Egypt in 1969, called the Cairo agreement. Fath reinforced its presence in those camps and in the south of Lebanon along the border with Israel. The south became known as Fatahland. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Asad pursued a dual policy toward the Palestinians in Lebanon, supporting to a more or lesser extent Fath in the Yarqub region near the Israeli border while at the same time trying to curtail its power in the rest of the country.

As most of PLO fighters were forced from Lebanon by Israel’s Defense Forces in 1982, Asad moved to extend his control over the remaining PLO fighters in the Beka’ Valley. Besides reinforcing Jibril’s group in the Beka’ and the refugee camps, by now called the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Asad supported a mutiny in Fath’s ranks in 1983, led by Colonel Sa’id Musa Maraghah, known as Abu Musa. Though the noose was tightened around Arafat’s neck and his loyalists in the Beka’, he managed to escape to the northern Lebanese city Tripoli where he easily forged an alliance with Muslim fundamentalists there, who were still incensed by the Asad regime’s bloody suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Syria in 1982. Arafat and his supporters entrenched themselves in the Baddawi and Nahr al-Bared refugee camps.

Asad feared that the Arafat-Muslim fundamentalist rebellion in northern Lebanon could spill over into Syria’s conservative heartland of Homs, which constitutes a geographic continuity to Tripoli. He mobilized his forces and indiscriminately bombed Arafat’s forces into submission. Hundreds were killed. As a result, Arafat left for Tunis. However, Arafat tried to rebuild his authority in Beirut’s refugee camps. Asad, employing the pro-Syrian Shi’a movement Amal, launched a protracted attack on Arafat’s supporters that lasted from 1985 until 1988. Approximately 3000 Palestinians were killed in what came to be known as War of the Camps.

Since then Asad attempted to tighten his control over Palestinian refugee camps, especially in Beirut and northern Lebanon. At the same time, he reinforced his Palestinian loyalists PFLP-GC and Abu Musa faction, known as Fatah Intifada, including entrenching them in camps alongside the Syrian border. In addition, he allowed Palestinian Islamist organizations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to operate in Lebanon and Syria in part to offset the power of the PLO.

Assad’s death in 2000 did not break the continuity of Syria’s policy toward the Palestinians in Lebanon. Rather, the Syrian regime has come to rely more on its Palestinian loyalists following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005. In fact, the Syrian regime, far from withdrawing from Lebanon (even technically) has created new "facts on the ground" which have made its compliance with a slew of United Nations Security Council resolutions - especially Resolution 1680 [15] (May 2006) and Resolution 1559 [16] (September 2004) - a mockery of the international system. The recent report by the fact-finding mission of the International Lebanese Committee (ILC) for UNSCR 1559 [17] (which has consultative status with the UN) revealed that Syria still occupies approximately 458 square kilometres of Lebanese territory in different areas adjacent to the border, and that it has changed the topography of the land so as to facilitate smuggling of weapons into Lebanon.

The mission, which focused on the Lebanon-Syria border at its northeast and southeast points, found many villages and their outskirts occupied by Syria and its pro-Palestinian groups. These villages and environs have been turned into smuggling routes and fortresses equipped with tanks and missile launchers. In the northeast, villages such as al-Qaa, Maarboun-Yafouha, and Arssal-Ras Baalback have become virtually Syrian in all but name. In the southeast, villages such as Kfarzabad, Ain Kfarzabad, Kosaya, Hashmish, Deir al-Ghazal, Maysaloun, Deir al-Achaeir, Halwa and Yanta are occupied by Syria, and - a sign of even greater control - their outlying areas have been made inaccessible to villagers. It is significant here that Kosaya hosts the heavily armed camp of the PFLP-GC, while the outskirts of Halwa and Yanta host other Palestinian factions, including Fatah-Intifada.

As the battle for the presidency intensifies between the US-backed Lebanese government and the anti-Syrian March 14 Forces on one side and the Hizbollah-led pro-Syrian opposition on the other, it is highly possible that the Syrian regime will employ its Palestinian loyalists to either plunge Lebanon into chaos by instigating a protracted battle with the Lebanese army or to help the opposition extend its authority over a significant swath of Lebanese territories in the event they formed a parallel government. Consequently, the Lebanese government has continued to seek American support to face the pro-Syrian opposition.

Undoubtedly, the US support of the Lebanese government has been crucial to its survival and to the stability of the country. In contrast to recent reports in media outlets asserting the manipulative and fatal policy of the US in Lebanon, it is hardly possible to deny the fact that without US involvement the Lebanese government could have obtained international backing under UNSCR 1701 for extending its authority throughout Lebanese territories. More importantly, had it not been for the US swift support of the Lebanese army, Fatah al-Islam would have defeated the army and created an Islamist Emirate in northern Lebanon with global Jihadi reach. It should not be lost on anyone that on the day Fatah al-Islam launched its war on the Lebanese authorities, the Lebanese army had virtually no ammunition to fight back. Emasculating the Lebanese army had been one Syrian scheme to keep Beirut subservient to Damascus during Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

The Lebanese government has been slowly but steadily trying to equip and overhaul the Lebanese armed forces. However, it is virtually inconceivable that the Lebanese army could at the time being curb the power of the pro-Syrian Palestinian extremist organizations. It is also hardly possible that Lebanese authorities could at the time being impose their authority over the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Lebanese authority could begin a process whereby its authority would gradually be imposed on all refugee camps. The Lebanese government has not made a significant effort to highlight Syria’s violations regarding its stealthy presence in Lebanon and arming its Palestinian agents there. To start with, the government should take up this serious issue with the United Nations Security Council since there is already a mechanism through UNSCR 1701 backing the government’s extension of its authority over all Lebanese territories. At the same time, as the Lebanese army defeated Fatah al-Islam, the Lebanese government should make clear to all Palestinian parties in Lebanon that rebuilding Nahr al-Bared camp and returning the refugees there would be contingent on banning all weapons from the camp and on observing only authority of the state. The lofty sacrifice the Lebanese army has so far paid to defeat the radicals in Nahr al-Bared must be in the least crowned by signaling once and for all the death of the Cairo agreement.        

Dr Robert Rabil is a Professor of Middle East Studies at Florida Atlantic University and Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

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