The good news is that after three months battling Al-Qaeda-allied Sunni Muslim militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Beirut can finally declare victory in this particular fight. On September 2, after a Lebanese army assault that killed 39 Fatah Al-Islam fighters, the surviving militants fled the Nahr El-Bared camp and scattered into the countryside. Civilians in surrounding communities took up arms to help mop up the fleeing fighters. The Associated Press reported that one farmer spotted a Fatah man in his garden and opened fire with a hunting rifle. “I hit him and handed him over to the army,” the farmer said amid widespread celebration.
In the early phases of Beirut’s siege of the Fatah-controlled camps back in May, many experts predicted disaster. They said that Beirut – reportedly weakened by the 2006 Israeli incursions aimed at destroying the Shi’ite Hezbollah extremist group in southern Lebanon – would buckle in any drawn-out fight with Fatah Al-Islam, and that the country would bifurcate into halves dominated by opposing extremist organizations. A Sunni-Shi’ite showdown, much like is happening in Iraq, would then be likely.
In June, I contended that Beirut’s decision to take on Fatah represented a resurgence of a government that had long been rendered essentially powerless by well-financed extremists. In the wake of the 2006 war, international assistance to Beirut had increased sharply, as illustrated by the massive reinforcement of the 11,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force headquartered in the southern border town of Naqoura. With powerful allies including the U.N. and the U.S. providing money, weapons and training, Beirut was poised to finally begin taking back Lebanon. This week’s victory over Fatah Al-Islam is a major step towards that goal.
The bad news is that extremists, both Sunni and Shi’ite, have begun to apply lessons learned by their brothers in Iraq, perhaps signaling increasingly lethal resistance to Beirut’s military campaigns. The war in Iraq has been characterized by the rapid proliferation of bomb-making skills. In Iraq, Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and Shi’ite militias all pursue different political agendas using many of the same weapons and tactics and targeting the same shared enemy: the U.S. and allied militaries. In four years of occupation, nearly two thousand U.S. troops have died in roadside bombings. But before this year, Iraq-style bombings were almost unheard of in Lebanon. Then on June 24, six U.N. peacekeepers were killed in an expertly timed roadside bombing apparently perpetrated by Hezbollah. And on July 16 there was another bombing targeting U.N. troops, this one reportedly orchestrated by Fatah Al-Islam. Luckily, no one was killed in that blast. But no one believes the July bombing will be the last: it’s only a matter of time before more U.N. troops are killed.
There are ways to mitigate the risk from roadside bombings. U.S. and NATO troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have adopted detonator-jamming technologies and blast-resistant armored trucks to reduce their casualty rates; the U.N. troops might soon embrace some of the same systems. But even the most high-tech solution is an imperfect one; the only way to truly defeat bombers is to keep doing whatever it is they’re trying to stop you from doing. In this case, both Fatah Al-Islam and Hezbollah want the U.N. out of Lebanon, for this will weaken Beirut and perhaps derail the government’s campaign to retake the country. Defeating the extremists in Lebanon means staying the course even when bombs explode and soldiers die. A free and democratic Lebanon is worth it.