During the past two years we have become accustomed to the seemingly endless bloodbath in Syria, which has become a boxing ring for the many forces that are tearing it apart, while tearing its citizens apart in the process as well. But now the flames of the Arab Spring are threatening its western neighbor, Lebanon, the most democratic Arab or Muslim state in the modern Middle East. The Lebanese political system, which is built on a delicate balance among many sects and political bodies, has been directly influenced in the past two years by the events in Syria, because several Lebanese bodies are deeply involved in the Syrian tragedy.
Many have written about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one may assume that this involvement – together with the terror attack in Burgas, Bulgaria – was the basis for the EU’s decision to declare the military arm of Hezbollah as a terror organization. Hezbollah is the target of harsh criticism these days, both by Sunni groups that identify with the rebels against Asad in Syria, and by the Shi’ites who fear that the Syrian Sunnis will bring its revenge to Lebanon. However, Nasrallah does not listen to his opposition and continues to carry out Teheran’s instructions to help Asad survive at any price, even at the price of the lives of hundreds of Hezbollah fighters.
The Sunnis do their part too, by trying to attack Hezbollah in it’s own domain, in Lebanon. To date we have seen missile strikes on Dahiya, the southern suburb of Beirut, which is the Hezbollah stronghold, as well as a car bomb that exploded there in mid-June. Supporters of Syria are also targets of Hezbollah’s opposition: In the beginning of the week of July 21, a Syrian journalist of Kurdish extraction named Mohammed Dhirar Jammu, a supporter of the Asad regime, was murdered in the Lebanese city of Sarafand.
But lately reports have begun to appear in the Arabic media that a new Sunni front, the Lebanese branch of the Syrian group Jabhat al-Nusra, is steadily strengthening and consolidating in Lebanon. Jabhat al-Nusra, which also has branches in Iraq, is part of the global system of al-Qaeda-inspired organizations that translate into practical terms the teachings of bin Laden, which are based on the ideology of his mentor, Palestinian Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.
First of all, the full, official name of the organization is “Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahal al-Sham” – “The Defensive Front for the People of Greater Syria.” The term “Greater Syria” expresses the organization’s rejection of the division of the modern Middle East into modern states – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel – because they were founded by Christian-European colonialism in order to serve its own interests. The “al-Sham” region includes West Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Land of Israel, which the Arabs call “Filastin”. Therefore, Israel must keep a watchful eye on this organization because it is theoretically possible that the Muslims in Israel will want to open branches of the organization in Israel as well. And this actually almost happened, but then was blocked when Sheikh Nazem Abu Islim of Nazareth was arrested, tried and imprisoned.
Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon
The Christian writer Luna Khuri describes the structure of the Lebanese branch of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Elaph Internet site. The head of the organization is Muhammad al-Rish from Tripoli, whose brother, Samer abd al-Rahim al-Rish, was one of the leaders of the Jund al-Sham organization (Greater Syrian Army) and was killed last month in the battle of the Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers, near Homs. Muhammad al-Rish’s immediate task is to defend the budding development of Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon from attacks by the Lebanese military, which are carried out against it by instructions from Hassan Nasrallah.
In mid-June of this year, the Lebanese army eliminated the Sunni Salafi sheikh, Ahmad al-Asir in Sidon, and captured a truck full of military equipment near the town of Arsal, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. This town is apparently the logistical center of the Jabhat al-Nusra organization in Lebanon, because of its location on the border of Syria and Lebanon. Its local commander in the town was Khaled Hunayd, who was killed by agents of Lebanese military intelligence. The present commander took a lesson from this event, so he now operates incognito, heading a group that includes approximately 200 fighters under the spiritual leadership of Sheikh Mustapha al-Hujairi – called Abu Takia (the turbaned one), who issued a fatwa – a religious legal ruling – that allows killing soldiers of the Lebanese army.
In Tripoli – a Sunni city with an Alawite minority – Jabhat al-Nusra is headed by Yassir al-Badidi, a Syrian inspired by the heads of al-Qaeda in Lebanon, Husam al-Saba’a, and Sheikh Salaam al-Ra’af’i. He commands six hundred Lebanese and Palestinian fighters, who are active participants in the war being waged on the back burner between the Sunni neighborhood of Baab al-Tabbana and the Alawite Jabal Mohsen. In the region of Akar, in north Lebanon, there are Jabhat al-Nusra organizations under formation in the cities of Halba, Quwayta and al-Kurum. They include about 300 Lebanese and Syrian fighters, headed by Khader Khuwiled, “Abu Thaer” (“The Avenger”).
There is a force of 250 fighters in the Ayn al-Hilwa refugee camp, in south Lebanon, near the city of Sidon, who are under the command of a Palestinian named Usama al-Shihabi. This force also includes fighters from the Yarmuk refugee camp, near Damascus, who have fled to Lebanon. In addition to these, there are a few more squads of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Burj al-Brajna, Mar Alias and Badawi refugee camps.
There are two important details regarding Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon. One is the fact that it is still in the process of becoming organized, and its affiliates have commenced operations against Hezbollah and the Lebanese army on a local basis. The other important detail is that it is based on a combination of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian forces, and it may be that in the future, additional jihadists from many other countries will join them, as happens in every other internal Islamic battleground – in Iraq, in Syria and in Libya.
However in this case as well, we already hear Sunni voices that are opposed to Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon, for instance Sheikh Umar Bakri Fustuq, head of al-Multaka al-Islami le-ahl al-Suna waljama’a fi Lubnan” (“The Islamic Forum of the Sunni Sect in Lebanon”), claiming that the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra organizations in Lebanon gives the Syrian regime and its supporters in Hezbollah an excuse to say that they are not fighting for Asad, but against al-Qaeda.
The conclusion to be drawn from all of the above is that in the past two years, while Hezbollah was engaged in Syria busily cutting short the lives of its citizens, in its back yard – Lebanon – a new and very complex problem has cropped up, in the form of the development of violent Sunni organizations with virulent anti-Shi’ite ideology, which aspires to free itself from Hezbollah’s noose and avenge the Sunni blood that has been spilled like water in Syria. The Lebanese army is supposed to deal with these developing Sunni organizations, but it seems that this army will not be capable of controlling them for long, so the Sunni groups are biding their time, waiting for the right opportunity to attack Hezbollah and the Lebanese army. The time will come when the Shi’ite organization will be so exhausted by its battle in Syria, its front yard, that it will be difficult for it to cope with the fresh forces that are building up and organizing against it in Lebanon, its back yard.
Lebanon has been a boxing ring where sects and militias have been battling it out ever since it became independent in 1943. But the moment of truth, the great battle that will determine the country’s fate once and for all, is approaching: will it end by becoming a Shi’ite regime under Hezbollah’s rule, a Sunni regime under the rule of jihadi militias or will it be divided up according to sect, after all of the peaceful citizens, who have no interest in war, have fled in all directions.
The West, especially Israel, must carefully monitor the developments in Lebanon, because there is a rare opportunity to cut off a significant part of one of the most important arms of the Iranian octopus, which comprises Syria and Hezbollah. I am no fan of the Sunni, Salafi jihadi movements, and if Jabhat al-Nusra takes over Syria and/or Lebanon, there is no doubt that this would create a security problem for Israel. Nevertheless, the main problem and the greatest problem for Israel and the West is Iran, and the closer Iran progresses toward the nuclear bomb, the more of an existential threat it becomes to Israel.
Even if the struggle against Iran and its satellites – the Asad regime and Hezbollah – means Jabhat al-Nusra’s taking over Syria and perhaps even Lebanon, the price, from Israel’s point of view, would be lower than the price that we and the Western world would have to pay if we allowed Iran to become a nuclear power. Jabhat al-Nusra is at most a tactical problem with operational aspects, compared with Iran, which is a strategic, existential threat. We must not allow the media who – rightly – always present Jabhat al-Nusra as part of al-Qaeda, to mislead public opinion and daunt the decision makers. The real, great problem, for us as well as for the world, is Iran, and therefore we must fight with its agents in every way possible, even by supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, if this organization is the only one capable of fighting the Syrian regime and Hezbollah effectively.
This article was written in Hebrew by Dr. Mordechai Kedar for the July 26, 2013 issue of the Makor Rishon newspaper, and translated to English by Sally Zahav.
About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.
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