A Lebanese mother mourns her soldier son
Last March, I noted Seymour Hersh’s alarming report on the efforts by Dick Cheney and his friends in Saudi Arabia to wage a proxy war against Iran, by enlisting all manner of Sunni fundamentalist jihadis, notably in Lebanon where they would be beefed up as a counterweight to Hezbollah. At the time I wrote:
These people have no shame, nor sense of humor or history, it seems: After all, it was a similar strategy in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that created al-Qaeda in the first place. This time, it will be different, Hersh’s sources insist, no doubt with a straight face:
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
All I can say is, it didn’t take long, did it? The radical Qaeda-oriented group fighting a pitched battle with the Lebanese Army at the expense of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Tripoli, Fatah al-Islam, appears to have been one of the beneficiaries of this strategy. That’s what Hersh is saying, and point is backed up by Charles Harb of the American University in Beirut, who argues that the Fatah al-Islam group was nurtured by the U.S.-backed Siniora government for its own sectarian purposes. He writes:
In the 2005 national parliamentary elections, Saad al-Hariri, the son of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri, appealed to Sunni sentiment to woo northern voters. Significant efforts were made to bring the Sunnis of Tripoli and Akkar under his wing and away from the area’s traditional leaders. Fulfilling an electoral pledge, the new parliament pardoned jailed Sunni militants involved in violence in December 2000. Those clashes in Dinnieh between Islamist radicals and the Lebanese army left dozens dead in a precursor of the violence of recent days.
Courting radical Sunni sentiment is a dangerous game. A major sign of trouble ahead had already emerged in February last year, when a protest against the cartoons belittling the prophet Muhammad turned violent and the Danish embassy was set ablaze in the fashionable Beirut district of Ashrafieh. Most of those protesting came from the impoverished areas of the north.
This picture becomes more complicated when the regional dimension is factored in. The invasion of Iraq has inflamed the Sunni-Shia divide and is changing the dynamics of the Middle East. Fear of Shia influence in Arab affairs has prompted many Sunni leaders to warn of a “Shia crescent” stretching from Iran, through Iraq, to south Lebanon. Several reports have highlighted efforts by Saudi officials to strengthen Sunni groups, including radical ones, to face the Shia renaissance across the region.
But building up radical Sunni groups to face the Shia challenge can easily backfire. While militant Islamist groups are sensitive to appeals to Sunni sentiment, they remain locked in their own agenda. Courted by regional players – Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – and infiltrated by intelligence services, Islamist radical groups serve the needs of some without necessarily becoming servants to any.
As Hersh told CNN this week, the carnage in Lebanon may be a sign of another Cheney-Abrams adventure gone bad.
CNN’s Hala Gorani begins by asking Hersh who is funding and arming groups such Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp:
SEYMOUR HERSH: The key player is the Saudis. What I was writing about was sort of a private agreement that was made between the White House, we’re talking about Richard — Dick — Cheney and Elliott Abrams, one of the key aides in the White House, with Bandar. And the idea was to get support, covert support from the Saudis, to support various hard-line jihadists, Sunni groups, particularly in Lebanon, who would be seen in case of an actual confrontation with Hezbollah — the Shia group in the southern Lebanon — would be seen as an asset, as simple as that.
GORANI: The Senora government, in order to counter the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon would be covertly according to your reporting funding groups like Fatah al-Islam that they’re having issues with right now?
HERSH: Unintended consequences once again, yes.
GORANI: And so if Saudi Arabia and the Senora government are doing this, whether it’s unintended or not, therefore it has the United States must have something to say about it or not?
HERSH: Well, the United States was deeply involved. This was a covert operation that Bandar ran with us. Don’t forget, if you remember, you know, we got into the war in Afghanistan with supporting Osama bin Laden, the mujahadin back in the late 1980s with Bandar and with people like Elliott Abrams around, the idea being that the Saudis promised us they could control — they could control the jihadists so we spent a lot of money and time, the United States in the late 1980s using and supporting the jihadists to help us beat the Russians in Afghanistan and they turned on us. And we have the same pattern, not as if there’s any lessons learned. It’s the same pattern, using the Saudis again to support jihadists, Saudis assuring us they can control these various group, the groups like the one that is in contact right now in Tripoli with the government.
GORANI: Sure, but the mujahadin in the ’80s was one era. Why would it be in the best interest of the United States of America right now to indirectly even if it is indirect empower these jihadi movements that are extremists that fight to the death in these Palestinian camps? Doesn’t it go against the interests not only of the Senora government but also of America and Lebanon now?
HERSH: The enemy of our enemy is our friend, much as the jihadist groups in Lebanon were also there to go after Nasrullah. Hezbollah, if you remember, last year defeated Israel, whether the Israelis want to acknowledge it, so you have in Hezbollah, a major threat to the American — look, the American role is very simple. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has been very articulate about it. We’re in the business now of supporting the Sunnis anywhere we can against the Shia, against the Shia in Iran, against the Shia in Lebanon, that is Nasrullah. Civil war. We’re in a business of creating in some places, Lebanon in particular, a sectarian violence.
GORANI: The Bush administration, of course, officials would disagree with that, so would the Senora government, openly pointing the finger at Syria, saying this is an offshoot of a Syrian group, Fatah al-Islam is, where else would it get its arms from if not Syria.
HERSH: You have to answer this question. If that’s true, Syria which is close — and criticized greatly by the Bush administration for being very close — to Hezbollah would also be supporting groups, Salafist groups — the logic breaks down. What it is simply is a covert program we joined in with the Saudis as part of a bigger broader program of doing everything we could to stop the spread of the Shia, the Shia world, and it bit us in the rear, as it’s happened before.
GORANI: Sure, but if it doesn’t make any sense for the Syrians to support them, why would it make any sense for the U.S. to indirectly, of course, to support, according to your reporting, by giving a billion dollars in aid, part of it military, to the Senora government — and if that is dispensed in a way that that government and the U.S. is not controlling extremist groups, then indirectly the United States, according to the article you wrote, would be supporting them. So why would it be in their best interest and what should it do according to the people you’ve spoken to?
HERSH: You’re assuming logic by the United States government. That’s okay. We’ll forget that one right now. Basically it’s very simple. These groups are seeing — when I was in Beirut doing interviews, I talked to officials who acknowledged the reason they were tolerating the radical jihadist groups was because they were seen as a protection against Hezbollah. The fear of Hezbollah in Washington, particularly in the White House, is acute. They just simply believe that Hassan Nasrallah is intent on waging war in America. Whether it’s true or not is another question. There is a supreme overwhelming fear of Hezbollah and we do not want Hezbollah to play an active role in the government in Lebanon and that’s been our policy, basically, which is support the Senora government, despite its weakness against the coalition. Not only Senora but Mr. Ahun, former military leader of Lebanon. There in a coalition that we absolutely abhor.