Syria's Secret Surrogate: The Truth About Fatah al-Islam's Uprising in
By Barry Rubin 6 June 2007
Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian Islamist group, has been waging an uprising in
Lebanon which has attracted huge media coverage. Most journalists identify
this group with al-Qaida or are just plain confused as to its identity. In
fact, what is happening is a major deception operation by Syria, a rather
typical case of how radical forces in the region fool the West, score
against their adversaries, and avoid any retaliation for their deeds.
Let's first describe the story briefly, then explain the motives and proof
behind it. An outline goes like this:
Step 1: Syria wants to sponsor violence and terrorism in Lebanon to bring
that country back under its control and intimidate the Lebanese from
supporting an international tribunal to investigate and punish those
responsible for murdering Lebanon's most popular politician, former prime
minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 bystanders on February 14, 2005. Since all the
evidence points at Syria's leaders as the murderers, killing the
investigation is their highest priority. The timing of this uprising came at
the very moment that the UN Security Council was voting to hold the tribunal
Step 2: Organize and order a shadowy group of terrorists, called Fatah
al-Islam, to disrupt Lebanon.
Step 3: And this is the scheme's most clever part, blame the terrorism on
your victim, Lebanon's own government, and your enemy, the United States.
Get some gullible or ideologically inclined journalists to talk to Syrian
officials, be fed this line, and then spread it throughout the world.
So how do we know that the uprising in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared
in northern Lebanon, which killed well over 100 people and led the Lebanese
army to shell the camp, was a Syrian operation?
Well, first, the group itself Fatah al-Islam, is merely part of an older
group, Fatah al-Intifada which has been a Syrian front group for almost 25
years. That is a rather strong hint of whose these people are and from where
their pay and arms come. But there is much more.
The leader of this group is a man by the name of Colonel Abu Khaled
al-Amleh. And he lives and operates out of Damascus, Syria. The Syrians do
not let terrorist groups function in the country unless the regime likes
them and finds them useful. That is also a major piece of evidence. But we
are just getting started.
The field commander of the group is a man named Shaker al-Absi. He has been
working as a Syrian agent since 1983. In 2003, Absi joined the insurgency in
Iraq against the Western forces there. Of course, Syria is the insurgency's
main sponsor. Hundreds of fighters cross the Syria-Iraq border, reportedly
there is a special government bus that takes them to a good jumping-off
point. This record reinforces the idea that Absi is working for Syria.
In Iraq, Absi worked with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida-Usama
bin Ladin's group-there. There is no inconsistency here. After all, when
Syria helps the insurgency, most of the forces they assist are led by
al-Qaida. While al-Qaida is by no means controlled by Syria, the radical duo
has some common interests.
Mr. Absi was involved in the murder of a U.S. diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in
Jordan on October 28, 2003. Naturally, the Jordanians wanted Syria to
extradite him so he could be questioned and punished. Syria refused, clearly
because its regime would not benefit from having Absi tell what he knew,
especially about Syria's own role in his activities. In 2004, Jordan
sentenced Absi to death in absentia.
So instead of turning him over to Jordan, the Syrian authorities announced
that they were going to punish Absi themselves. Accordingly, they claimed
Absi was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his violent actions in
their own country. Three years is a joke. Terrorists who attack the Syrian
regime are put to death or given very long sentences. Often, they happen to
die conveniently in a manner that used to be described as "shot while trying
And of course there is no evidence that Absi was ever in prison and
certainly not for three years since only two years later he is back in
business as a terrorist. For all we know during this period in between he
was living very nicely and engaged in training himself and others.
On being "released," in November 2005, Absi comes back to Syria and goes to
Lebanon. Again, if the Syrian government thought he would do anything
against their interests there he would not have been allowed to go so easily
and conveniently. Immediately, Absi "split" his old group and began Fatah
al-Islam. The ideology of the group, merging Arab nationalism and Islamism,
is very much in line with Syria's current political doctrine.
Within Lebanon today, independent and pro-government newspapers have run
detailed articles about Absi, his Syrian credentials, and the motives of
Damascus for bashing Lebanon. Since Hariri's murder three years ago, there
have been 15 major terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at assassinating critics
of Syrian attempts to dominate Lebanon. There is a pattern here.
Meanwhile, Syrian officials have been briefing some Western journalists, who
know no Arabic and have no serious background in studying the Middle East.
They tell these people that Fatah al-Islam is a front for Lebanon's
government and even the United States. There is no evidence that this is
true. What is telling is that the articles published use precisely the same
phrases employed by Syrian officials about 48 hours earlier.
The situation in Lebanon is complicated. But the majority of Lebanese want
their country to be independent. They suffered under 20 years of Syrian
occupation which looted the country and repressed its people systematically.
The moderate, democratic leadership needs and deserves Western support
against a terrorist offensive directed by the neighboring dictatorship. It
would be a pity to be fooled, by such transparent schemes as the Fatah
al-Islam affair, into supporting the oppressors.
Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center, has written and edited 50 books on the Middle East. His
latest book, The Truth About Syria, has just been published by
Professor Barry Rubin,
Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor, Turkish Studies