Just when you thought that the Middle East couldn’t support yet another crisis — after all, there’s Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and throw in Georgia, too — the Syria-Lebanon front is heating up. This is serious stuff.
Breathless neocons are issuing alarmist warnings about a possible Syrian invasion of northern Lebanon, after a spate of bombings that hit both Damascus and the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli. Amir Taheri, one of those neocons, writes:
For the last week or so, Syria has been moving heavily armed elite military units to the Lebanese border – with up to 25,000 massed there by early last week. Backed by tanks, armored vehicles and attack helicopters, the units were on “maximum war footing,” eyewitnesses say. … Lebanese analysts say the type of force Syria is massing is better suited for a classical invasion than for chasing small and scattered groups of bandits along the border.
According to the Lebanese media, Syria has placed about 10,000 troops on the border.
This comes at a critical time: Israel and Syria are conducting fairly public negotiations about a Syrian-Israeli deal to return the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria, and the leaders of both Turkey and France are deeply engaged in promoting it. At the same time, Syria is closely tied to Iran, and Syria’s President Assad is getting stronger backing from Russia, including arms, since Syria supported the Russian action against Georgia. It all means that this is a high-stakes game.
Some background: earlier this week, a huge car bomb in Damascus killed 17 people, not far from two possible targets: a headquarters of the Syrian intelligence service and an important Shiite mosque. Both targets are plausible for attacks by underground, Sunni fundamentalist radicals — possibly tied to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — who oppose Assad’s regime. (Many Sunni fanatics consider Assad, who belongs to a quasi-Shiite minority sect, to be an infidel.) The bombing took place against the backdrop of an ongoing insurrection by Sunni Islamist prisoners in a Syrian jail.
According to the Times, Assad put the blame on Islamists based in northern Lebanon and moved troops to the border: