IS Syria preparing to seize the opportunity provided by the global
financial crisis and the US presidential campaign to invade Lebanon?
For the last week or so, Syria has been moving heavily armed elite
military units to the Lebanese border - with up to 25,000 massed there
by early last week. Backed by tanks, armored vehicles and attack
helicopters, the units were on "maximum war footing," eyewitnesses say.
Damascus says the build-up is a response to smuggling rings that
run the black market in the Syrian capital and major provincial
centers. My Lebanese contacts call that explanation "laughable" -
noting that Syrian elite itself runs the black market in both countries
through the security services.
The buildup covers only the northern portion of the Syria-Lebanon
border, leaving the eastern portions in the hands of the Iran-financed
(and thus Syria-allied) Hezbollah militia.
And Lebanese analysts say the type of force Syria is massing is
better suited for a classical invasion than for chasing small and
scattered groups of bandits along the border.
More ominously, the official Syrian media claim that the force
could be used to "hunt down and eliminate fundamentalist terrorists
linked to al Qaeda." This refers to a group called Fatah al-Islam
(Conquest of Islam), which fought the Lebanese army in the northern
city of Tripoli, close to the Syrian border, for months before being
flushed out. Since then, the group has gone underground; it is
suspected in a number of assassinations and suicide attacks.
In his meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Turkish
Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan last month, Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad promised, without going into details, that he'd "play a more
active part" in the War on Terror. The Lebanese see Syria's claimed
intent to fight al Qaeda-linked terrorists as a ploy to "hoodwink the
"They want to present their invasion as part of the global War on Terror led by the United States," says a Lebanese analyst.
Indeed, evidence suggests that Syria assisted the emergence of
Fatah al-Islam in the Tripoli area. Lebanon borders only two other
nations, Israel and Syria. Since it's unlikely that Fatah al-Islam
killers entered Lebanon from Israel, the assumption that they came
through Syria can't be dismissed easily.
Plus, shortly after Fatah al-Islam seized control of the Nahr
al-Bared area close to Tripoli, a pro-Syrian Palestinian group, Fatah
al-Intifada (Conquest of the Uprising), merged with it. That couldn't
have happened without Damascus' approval.
Fatah al-Islam members captured by the Lebanese army have said that
almost all the group's fighters came from other Arab countries. Once
installed in Tripoli, they linked up with "sleeper" Palestinian terror
networks there and launched a joint bid for the control of the mostly
Yet another pretext the Syrians invoke for a possible intervention
in Lebanon is the protection of the Alawite religious minority.
The Alawites, an esoteric sect most Muslims regard as heretics,
number some 50,000 around Tripoli. But they account for 11 percent of
Syria's population and dominate its government and armed forces through
the Assad dynasty.
In its brief domination of Tripoli, the Fatah al-Islam gang
refrained from attacking Alawite neighborhoods, giving credence to
claims that it was a Syrian proxy.
When Syria invaded and occupied Lebanon in the 1970s, its excuse
was that it wanted to protect the Christian minority against the
Palestinians and their allies. Today, with a majority of Lebanese
Christians opposed to Syrian intervention, it is painting the Alawites
as those needing protection.
One thing is certain: The Syrian buildup has little, if anything,
to do with fighting smugglers or terrorists. Syria has special police
and security units for such tasks.
President Assad might well be tempted to remedy his humiliation in
2005, when he was forced to withdraw his army from Lebanon after 29
years of occupation.
If so, he may well be eyeing a brief window of opportunity right
now. America is preoccupied by the financial crisis and the
presidential campaign. And Europe, led by Sarkozy, has just committed
itself to rehabilitating Syria and doesn't want to jeopardize the
supposed gains of its "positive dialogue" with Damascus.
Turkey would be in no position to criticize a Syrian incursion into
Lebanon - Turkish forces have repeatedly entered Iraq, ostensibly to
hunt down Kurdish rebels. And Russia - grateful for Syria's support in
the recent war with Georgia - wouldn't frown at a Syrian move to topple
the pro-Western regime in Beirut. Israel, politically paralyzed and
possibly heading for early elections, is in no position to oppose a
So far, Syria's military gesticulations on the Lebanese border
haven't elicited warnings from the United States or the European Union,
encouraging the hard-line faction in Damascus that is pressing for a
"return to Lebanon."