If Syria and Iraq Become Fractured, So Too Will Tripoli and North Lebanon

06/01/2015 12:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE via Getty Images

BEIRUT -- The talk now is all about whether Syria and Iraq will end up as divided states. The impetus for such speculation derives firstly from the latest Saudi, Qatari and Turkish joint resolve to mount huge numbers of jihadists on Syria's borders. According to two senior political figures I spoke to, up to 10,000+ Wahhabist/Salafists (predominantly An-Nusra/Al Qaeda) have been gathered by the intelligence services of these latter states, mostly non-Arabs from Chechnya, Turkmenistan, etc. Plainly, Washington is aware of this (massively expensive) Saudi maneuver and equally plainly it is turning a blind eye to it. 

Secondly, the speculation about a coming fractured Iraq has gained big momentum from ISIS's virtually unopposed walk-in to Ramadi. The images of long columns of ISIS Toyota Land Cruisers, black pennants waving in the wind, making their way from Syria all the way -- along empty desert main roads -- to Ramadi with not an American aircraft in evidence, certainly needs some explaining. There cannot be an easier target imagined than an identified column of vehicles, driving an arterial road, in the middle of a desert. 

Do these two cases of a Nelsonian "blind eye" have something to do with persuading the GCC at Camp David to sign up to the statement that they accepted that an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program was in their "security interests"? After all, Obama desperately needs it to paint Netanyahu as the isolated outlier on the Iran deal issue and thus undercut his ability to influence Congress.

Coincidentally, a highly redacted U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment from August 2012 has been released through a federal lawsuit. It states that "If the situation unravels [in Syria], there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime." The assessment says that the creation of such a Salafist principality would have "dire consequences" for Iraq and would possibly lead to the creation of an Islamic State and would "create the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi."

A few days after the release of the DIA assessment report, John Bolton lent weight to its claims: "I think the Sunni Arabs are never going to agree to be in a state [Iraq] where the Shia outnumber them 3-1. That's what ISIS has been able to take advantage of. I think our objective should be a new Sunni state out of the western part of Iraq, the eastern part of Syria run by moderates or at least authoritarians who are not radical Islamists."

Well, this is exactly what has happened. Should we be surprised? The idea of breaking up the large Arab states into ethnic or sectarian enclaves is an old Ben Gurion "canard," and splitting Iraq along sectarian lines has been Vice President Biden's recipe since the Iraq war. But the idea of driving a Sunni "wedge" into the landline linking Iran to Syria and to Hezbollah in Lebanon became established Western group think in the wake of the 2006 war, in which Israel failed to de-fang Hezbollah. The response to 2006, it seemed to Western powers, was to cut off Hezbollah from its sources of weapons supply from Iran. 

In short, the DIA assessment indicates that the "wedge" concept was being given new life by the desire to pressure Assad in the wake of the 2011 insurgency launched against the Syrian state. "Supporting powers" effectively wanted to inject hydraulic fracturing fluid into eastern Syria (radical Salafists) in order to fracture the bridge between Iran and its Arab allies, even at the cost of this "fracking" opening fissures right down inside Iraq to Ramadi. (Intelligence assessments purpose is to provide "a view" -- not to describe or prescribe policy. But it is clear that the DIA reports' "warnings" were widely circulated and would have been meshed into the policy consideration.)

But this "view" has exactly come about. It is fact. One might conclude then that in the policy debate, the notion of isolating Hezbollah from Iran, and of weakening and pressurizing President Assad, simply trumped the common sense judgement that when you pump highly toxic and dangerous fracturing substances into geological formations, you can never entirely know or control the consequences. And once you go down this road, it is not easy to "walk it back," as it were: the toxicity is already suffused through the rocks. So, when the GCC demanded a "price" for any Iran deal (i.e. massing "fracking" forces close to Aleppo), the pass had been already partially been sold by the U.S. by 2012, when it did not object to what the "supporting powers" wanted.

Will then the region fragment into a hardcore Wahhabist/Salafist corridor stretching across Syria and Iraq, while the non-Wahhabist other states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen -- and Hezbollah) stand in armed opposition to this entity? Perhaps. We do not know. But statements by Hezbollah's Deputy Leader, Shiekh Naim Qassem and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, suggest that neither Iran nor Hezbollah will accept a "fracked" Syria. (It is less clear however whether this applies to Iraq too, though we suspect that for Iran, it does.)

Similar comments have been made by a senior Hashad leader in Iraq: "It is impossible to eliminate ISIS in Iraq without following it into Syria. We will put our differences with Syria on one side and will join efforts to fight and eliminate ISIS ... The U.S. knew that ISIS would expand in Syria and was planning to divide Iraq. This plan is over..." These comments may presage a more proactive response by Iran (and it is hard to see that Russia and China will not be more proactive too, given the composition of the forces now being groomed by Saudi and Turkish intelligence).

But there is another point to this speculation: It leaves out Lebanon. If Syria and Iraq are to be "fracked" -- and hard-core Sunni fundamentalism return "to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi," in the words of the DIA assessment, why should Tripoli (capital of Libya) and the north of Lebanon prove immune from this "fracturing"? Lebanon's Tripoli was in fact the first ISIS-style "emirate." 

The reason why a Salafi-jihadist movement should have originated in Tripoli needs a little background. A city of half a million people, Tripoli is, in a nutshell, the seat of Sunni strength in Lebanon. Traditionally, Tripoli had been the center of militant pan-Arabist nationalist and Nasserist sentiment, and until the Lebanese civil war, it lay in the mainstream of Levant Sunnism. Militant Arabism in Tripoli had Arabist nationalist and Nasserist sentiment, and until the Lebanese civil war, it lay in the mainstream of Levant Sunnism. Militant Arabism in Tripoli had been so pronounced in the 1920s and 1930s that its inhabitants had fiercely opposed inclusion of Tripoli into a "Greater Lebanon." In the 1930s, Sunnis from Tripoli took part in an armed revolt against the prospect of a "Greater Lebanon," demanding Tripoli's inclusion with the Syrian cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo into a separate Sunni Arab-nationalist autonomy.  

While the birth of jihadism in Tripoli can be ascribed to the outset of the civil war in 1975, the beginning of the substantive shift in the character of Sunni Islam in Tripoli may be dated to 1947, when the Salafist Sheikh Salim al-Shahal returned from Saudi Arabia to Tripoli to find the first Wahhabi-orientated Salafist movement. During Lebanon's civil war, Al-Jama'a -- the Lebanese equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) -- fragmented and splintered under the stress. With Syria's intervention in Lebanon in 1976, a host of radical Al-Jama'a offshoots inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran sprang up.  In 1982, these Al-Jama'a breakaway factions formed Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami (the Islamic Unification Movement). The hardline MB offshoots, now united as "Tawhid," then seized control of Tripoli from the Syrian-backed militia forces. 

Strengthened by arms and training from the PLO and an influx of trained Syrian MB operatives after President Assad's ferocious crushing of the MB revolt in Hama in February 1982, Tawhid forces imposed Islamic law at gunpoint in neighborhoods which they controlled. The "Islamic Republic" of Tripoli lasted for a period of two years (e.g. banning alcohol, forcing women to wear the veil, etc.). Dozens and dozens of secular political opponents (mostly Communists) were executed, sparking an exodus of Christians from the city. In subsequent years, Saudi influence in Tripoli predominated, and Tripoli spawned diverse Salafist groups -- absorbing many MB members who survived the Syrian crackdown -- and witnessed a progressive migration towards radical jihadism.

In short, were Aleppo and other parts of Syria and large swathes of Iraq to be "fracked," then expect the same for Tripoli and north Lebanon too. 

Iraq city of Ramadi falls to Islamic State