Are you watching the news? It's easy to look at the fighting between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon and dismiss this as the usual hodgepodge of conflict associated with the Middle East. After all, we've been seeing this for years. Or have we?
There is something distinctly different between this latest battle and past conflicts in Lebanon. Past conflicts have usually involved a strong Israeli element. But the latest incidents are the first involving a Sunni element that many claim is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. Whether or not Fatah al-Islam is affiliated with Al-Qaeda isn't clear. Everybody in the region has different views on who supports them. According to the press, Anti-Syrian groups claim that the group is backed by Syrian intelligence. Other media reporting claims it's an offshoot of al-Qaeda. Every group seems to have a different opinion on both its origins and its purpose, and the various allegations only serve the agendas of the parties making them. The constant finger-pointing only muddies the issue, a scene reminiscent of the Bosnian conflict.
What cannot really be argued is the fact that Fatah al-Islam serves al-Qaeda's purpose, intentionally or not. By taking the fight up in Lebanon Fatah al-Islam has put a different challenge to the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples and has brought Lebanon to the very brink of civil war. Al-Qaeda leaders are licking their chops at the prospect, hoping for a polarization of Shia and Sunni groups into their respective camps to justify their future actions in Lebanon, under the guise of defending Sunnis and their faith.
Lebanon is faced with the ever-growing challenge of remaining secular in the face of pressure to polarize along religious lines. The role of the Shias and the Sunnis is a bit obvious. But the immediate challenge is for the Lebanese Armed Forces to step up and quell the conflict. The predominant Shia political and militant group, Hizbollah, has its finger on the trigger waiting for the Lebanese military to fail in rounding up Fatah al-Islam and putting down Sunni militant groups. If the Lebanese military fails in this respect Hizbollah, which enjoys the monetary and logistical support of Iran, will step up and stake a claim as the defenders of Lebanon, providing a significant boost in the popular support they need to sweep into power, either by political means or via civil war. The true challenge is faced by the Lebanese military, to rise to the challenge and crush a direct threat to Lebanon's status as a secular society. If they are unable to do so, get ready to watch the fireworks.