The battle for control of the Middle East, part of which is being fought today in Syria, and that this past weekend many fear has spread to engulf neighboring Lebanon, is at the end of the day still very much a battle for control of the region’s oil fields. Whoever controls the Middle East oil fields controls the region’s politics and by default the region’s religion; given that religion and politics are very difficult to separate in Islam, it is often the focus point of conflict.
This conflict is as complicated as it is complex but can be explained in relatively simple terms as a power struggle between Sunni Muslims, who make-up the main branch of Islam, and Shiite Muslims, whom the Sunnis consider to be heretics. Some see this current conflict as a continuation of the initial conflict between the followers and the descendants of the prophet over who would be the legal heir to the House of Islam. That was when the Sunni-Shia schism first developed.
Others see what is happening today as a modern version of this clash, as a power struggle between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, all Sunni states on the one side pitted against the Shiite axis composed of Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, on the other.
Iran, some analysts believe, has visions of expansion and therefor of control of the Arab-Sunni world’s oil fields. This the fear goes, could be enforced much easier by a nuclear-armed Iran. The Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, are supporting the mainly Sunni Free Syrian Army and a slew of other opposition groups, among them Salafi and Takfiri groups. Salafis follow a strict version of Islam as it was practiced at the time of the prophet, and in general do not support the use of violence. Takfiris are Salafis who believe that the end justifies the means and will often turn to violence to achieve their goals. They are both Sunni Muslims.
The Shia in Iran and their allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah are backing the Alawites in Syria, a somewhat secretive sect who are an off-shoot of Shiism. But as the Syrian regime began to sink in the quagmire that has developed into the full-fledged Syrian civil war, its president, Bashar Assad promised to drag other countries into the fray. Indeed, there has been consistent fear throughout the 19-month civil war that it would only be a matter of time before the axe fell on Lebanon forcing the country into a new civil war, many analysts believe.
Over the past year and a half the ingredients were slowly falling into place and reached a boiling point last Sunday when a powerful car bomb exploded in the Christian sector of Ashrafieh killing the head of the country’s Internal Security Forces intelligence chief and seven other people and wounding 78.
This attack against the pro-West intel chief is believed to be the work of Syrian agents in Beirut. Al-Hassan was responsible for conducting the Lebanese inquiry in the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri. Al-Hassan had been at one time in charge of the former Lebanese prime minister’s security detail. He was known for his anti-Syrian stance and had been working closely with US, French and German intelligence services. Just a few days prior to his death had visited German intelligence officials in Germany.
Al-Hassan’s killing proves a number of interesting developments;
The bombing must have been carried out by an organized intelligence service who knew that the Lebanese official would be driving by that certain street at that certain time. That means that al-Hassan’s entourage must have been infiltrated in order to obtain such information.
And second, the killing of such a prominent official, the head of the country’s internal security intelligence agency, is a clear message to those seeking to distance the country from Syrian influence that Damascus still has very much its say in Lebanon.
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The killing of the Lebanese security chief prompted clashes in Beirut and Tripoli, in the north, between Sunnis and Shiites and had it not been for the intervention of the Lebanese army who in the past chose to remain on the side lines, has intervened this time, putting troops between the two factions.
Despite the army’s intervention tension remains brisk in Beirut and other parts of the country where another spark could plunge the whole country into chaos once again.
Lebanon has no oil – yet – though it is believed that a large field lies off the coast between southern Lebanon and northern Israel. But that is yet another point of contention and tension.
By. Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.