The latest fighting in Tripoli between government forces and Palestinian militants brings back vivid memories of many battles I watched from both near and far during my years in and out of Lebanon throughout the '80s and early '90s. News reports state that there are as many as 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon, but with the exception of traveling near the Sabra and Shatilla camps between the airport and downtown Beirut, their presence was always muted during my visits. Even when passing through Tripoli in the early '90s, I wasn't aware of them. So much for paying attention.
This fighting is somewhat startling because it's the first time in many, many years that the government has stood up and fought for anything. Syria's invasion into Lebanon in the fall of 1990 was basically met with idle disinterest by the Lebanese government, in part perhaps because our own government tacitly approved the takeover as a means of garnering Syrian support against Saddam in the Gulf War. Syria knew we wouldn't complain, and so did the Lebanese. Rolling over and playing dead was the easy way out.
Later, as Hezbollah muscled its way into control of southern Lebanon through a mixture of armed presence, provision of social services and political acumen, the government stood by idly and watched it all happen. For that, it's now paying a price as Hezbollah threatens the government's very foundation and certainly the nation's very future.
What, then, is all this about?
Opinions vary, but consider the following. Palestinians are traditionally Sunni, and the militants are led by an individual who professes allegiance to al Qaeda, and who the Syrians held in prison for some years as a 'terrorist.' Fancy that — the Syrians calling anyone a terrorist!
Unlike most other individuals who have posed any kind of threat to the Syrian regime, this individual was released from custody instead of simply disappearing, never to be heard from again. But once released, he quickly made his way to Tripoli and formed the al Qaeda-linked militant group, which the government is now fighting.
Consider also that Hezbollah — a Shiite following who doesn't have allegiance to al Qaeda but which could certainly ally with them against common foes (Israel and the U.S. come to mind!) — is itself an armed militia with strong terrorist ties. Yet, it's a virtual improbability that the Lebanese government ever can, or will, challenge Hezbollah. They have become a government within a government, an illegitimate stepchild to Lebanon's recently regained, yet still fragile, democracy.
Now Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Nasrallah, is cautioning the government about going into the camp and eliminating the militant group. While not supporting the militants directly, he is clearly speaking out in favor of the Palestinian refugees themselves. Ten thousand of them are reportedly still huddled inside the camp during the fighting, and Nasrallah's statements are heartening to not only them but also to the other Palestinians spread throughout camps in Lebanon. They're also heartening to Palestinians throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Already a hero far outside the confines of his own country because of last year's war with Israel, Nasrallah can clearly be seen courting their favor. This posturing is certainly of concern to the Lebanese government, as it should be to the U.S. and Israel as well. Such courting not only strengthens Nasrallah's political base within Lebanon, it also plays to the favor of his principal allies in Tehran and Damascus.
Where this will all end up for the militants themselves remains to be seen. How it plays out for the U.S. may not be so difficult to discern. Russia has already spoken out loudly against U.S. military supplies being moved in to help the Lebanese army, and it's a certainty that Hezbollah and those of the anti-U.S. media will portray civilian deaths as the fault of America. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government will be struggling to forestall Hezbollah gains, supported as they may be now by the 400,000 Palestinians inside Lebanon. In the final analysis, the militants may be gone, but the question is how it will impact internationally on us.
Lt. Col. Bill Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally-acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. He spent 11 years doing undercover operations in Lebanon against Hezbollah and Syria. Read his full bio here.