Syria plays the Palestinian card in Lebanon.

Author:Blanche, Ed

THE LEBANESE GOVERNMENT OF Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, struggling to curb a destabilisation campaign by a humiliated Syria following its forced withdrawal from Lebanon in April, is moving to disarm Damascus-backed radical Palestinian factions and to close down their bases. Such factions, Beirut claims, are heavily involved in the subversion.

In the circumstances, this could be a perilous undertaking amid the tension that has gripped Lebanon since the 14 February assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a crime widely blamed on the Syrians and further exacerbated by the murder of Gebran Tueni last month.

With Lebanon's security services, previously tightly controlled by Damascus, in disarray amid the anti-Syrian purge that followed the murder of Hariri, and the downsizing of the Lebanese Army from 60,000 troops to 40,000, the security situation in Lebanon remains extremely fluid. And as Syrian ire with the Lebanese and with the allegations of complicity in both assassinations intensifies, the country becomes increasingly vulnerable to internal unrest.

In mid-November, Tishreen, a leading state-run Syrian newspaper, raised the political temperature sharply by openly calling for the overthrow of Siniora, the first Lebanese premier in three decades not appointed by Damascus, and for massive street protests against his government. No such demonstrations have yet occurred, but protests by Syrian allies such as the Shiite movements of Hizbullah and Amal could yet materialise as international pressure on Damascus grows.

There is growing evidence that pro-Syrian groups have been activated to stir up trouble following the withdrawal from Lebanon in April. The government in Beirut alleges that Syria is infiltrating militants and weapons to the radical Palestinian groups it supports. In recent weeks, Lebanese authorities have arrested seven people, including several Palestinians, in connection with a spate of deadly bombings in mainly anti-Syrian Christian areas of Lebanon.

According to Lebanese security sources, these suspects were operating under Brigadier General Jamaa Jamaa, the deputy chief of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon until the withdrawal and a key suspect in the United Nations investigation into Hariri's assassination. Among those arrested was Abu Hassan Ghazi of Al Saiqa, a small Syrian-sponsored Palestinian group that has been largely inactive for several years.

Ghazi was picked up in the southern port of Sidon, where Palestinian radicals are active in refugee camps around the city, along with Saad Loubani, a member of the central committee of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). That group, led by Ahmed Jibril, is Syrian intelligence's closest ally among the hardline Palestinian factions. Lebanese...

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