x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian-backed militant group may spell its own demise in Lebanon

Police have sued the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command, after they accused authorities of plotting to capture one of their bases.

PFLP-GC militants guard a base in Naameh near Beirut.
PFLP-GC militants guard a base in Naameh near Beirut.

KFAR ZABAD, LEBANON // Lebanon's top police officer last week sued the leaders of a Syrian-backed militant group after they had accused Lebanese authorities of plotting to capture one of their bases. Brig Gen Ashraf Rifi of the Internal Security Forces filed a slander case against members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC).

The dispute pertains to an outbreak of violence on April 8 at a PFLP-GC base in Ain Bayda, just outside the village of Kfar Zabad, in which members of the group began firing on one another The group's leaders claimed that Lebanese military forces were behind the incident, having infiltrated the group's ranks and fomented division in order to generate violence and give the army an excuse to occupy the mountain stronghold, one of three the PFLP-GC has in the eastern Beqaa valley. The militants also have a fourth tunnel complex south of Beirut.

The incident has drawn attention to a group that was once renowned for its operations against Israel, but which in recent years has receded from the limelight and whose footsoldiers live an obscure existence in the mountainous border between Syria and Lebanon. And if what Lebanese security personnel and Palestinian authorities are saying is correct - that the violence was in fact internal - it may signal the group's demise.

They claim members of the group mutinied after its Damascus-based leadership attempted to replace Doriad Shaaban, an officer, with a Syrian military. Mr Shaaban, was known to operate a lucrative cross border smuggling operation that over the past 20 years appeared to have replaced the liberation of Palestine as the group's raison d'être, Palestinian officials and Lebanese army officers said. Mr Shaaban rejected the dismissal by attempting to seize the Ain Bayda base in the group's first major military operation in almost two decades. In the ensuing battle, in which all three of the PFLP-GC bases in the area appeared to open fire on one another, according to local witnesses, at least one militant was killed and as many as six were wounded.

"The sky was raining missiles," said one local resident and diesel fuel smuggler, Hajj Abu Mohammed. "We have not seen them leave those bases since the Syrian military left in 2005. Once a week, the [Lebanese] army allows a single lorry to come down from the bases to buy cigarettes, coffee and tea for the boys. But they were always quiet before last night." The militants of the PFLP-GC, a Syrian-backed leftist group that splintered from the PFLP in 1968, rarely leave their mountain fortresses except to slip across the border to Syria. When asked how the group occupies its time in the mountain bases, which were originally built for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation by North Korean engineers in the 1970s, Abu Mohammed shrugged and said "they drink coffee and smoke cigarettes".

That account was backed up by a local journalist who managed a brief visit inside one of the camps almost a decade ago. "They sit in caves, smoking and drinking tea and coffee with their rusted guns talking about battles they fought in 1975," said the journalist, who asked not to be named, citing possible retribution from the group. They also occupy themselves with smuggling goods across the border.

The PFLP-GC's leadership, including the top commander Ahmed Jibril, live in relative luxury in Damascus and enjoy close ties with Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad, but rarely engage in militancy. The group has claimed responsibility for firing a handful of small rockets into northern Israel on a few occasions over the past decade, but is most famous for allegedly building and providing the bomb to Libyan intelligence agents that brought down Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The group did successfully conduct a series of attacks against Israel in the early 1970s - with a particular emphasis towards using hang gliders to infiltrate the country - before morphing into a Syrian proxy during the 1975-91 Lebanese Civil War. But although it is regarded as a minor player, the group's armed presence in Lebanon remains an open problem between Lebanon and Syria. Beirut has ordered the group to disarm or leave Lebanon and fighting nearly broke out in October 2005 as the Lebanese army moved towards the camps.

It has also repeatedly opened fire on or harassed UN officials or journalists who attempted to approach its bases. But according to a top Palestinian official, Syria has begun to withdraw support for the fighters still based in Lebanon, leaving many of them worried about eventual arrest or assaults by Lebanese security forces. Abu Mustafa, an official with Fatah in the Palestinian Ain Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, said the group was becoming a major concern for Palestinians in Lebanon.

"The guns of PLFLP-GC now are a burden on us Palestinian refugees in Lebanon," he said. "We use to think about the guns outside the camps as symbolic resistance arms, but now we see these arms are not for resistance any more, but only a tool, a political tool for Syria." And he claims the loss of Syrian support has destabilised the mentality of the fighters in the caves, as they fight to grab as much money and power as they can before being kicked out of Lebanon for the refugee camps in Syria.

"All we hope now is that we won't have to deal with any repercussions if the issue of the PFLP-GC arms will be dealt with through force or any other form." mprothero@thenational.ae