Saturday, May 24, 2003

[Resume] Perhaps military doctrine dictates otherwise. In much the same way as the army cannot be deployed on the border with Israel, our officers have possibly deemed entry into Ain al-Hilweh (which incidentally harbor the killers of several of their military intelligence comrades) as strategically imprudent. Or, there could be other reasons that are more complicated.

For elucidation we should look at the perennial rivalry between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Syria. Though such things aren’t publicized, it is Syria’s yearning to deliver Lebanon’s Palestinians to an overall regional settlement. As Damascus contemplates its depleted hand, it still has some cards to play in Lebanon, one of them its control over the refugee camps in Beirut, Tripoli and the Biqaa. With the Rashidiyyeh camp in Tyre under Arafat’s influence, Ain al-Hilweh has become the main battleground between Syria and the Palestinian leader.

This raises another question: If the Syrians want to undermine Arafat, why not just send Lebanese units into Ain al-Hilweh to liquidate his men? One reason is that the Palestinians would unite against the army, since all their factions agree on the need to preserve the political and military autonomy of the camps. What would ensue is a veritable bloodbath, forcing the Lebanese to police a hostile and impoverished environment for years. Isn’t it better, many argue, to simply contain the Palestinians in the camp, even if it means letting them kill each other?

There is another reason. An unstable Ain al-Hilweh usefully reminds outside countries that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is necessary, particularly if the camp is home to Al Qaida-linked Islamists. It is also a source of manpower for anti-Israeli operations if Syria requires such military leverage. For example the cross-border attacks by Palestinians against Israel in April 2002 were, arguably, Syria’s way of expressing displeasure with the Saudi initiative adopted a few days earlier at the Beirut Arab League summit, which Syria was annoyed with. [Continued]

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