The fighting that began in nor- thern Lebanon last Sunday, May 20, may drag the country back into a civil war, or it may not. It may be the result of a Syrian plot, or it may not. As a rule, if you claim to understand what is going on in Lebanon, you simply reveal the depths of your ignorance. And yet people do claim to understand it.
White House spokesperson Tony Snow claimed to understand it on Tuesday. "We believe those behind the attack have two clear goals: to disrupt Lebanon's security and to distract international attention from the special tribunal for Lebanon. We will not tolerate attempts by Syria, terrorist groups or any others to delay or derail Lebanon's efforts to solidify its sovereignty or to seek justice in the Hariri case."
In other words, it is a Syrian plot.
The timing of the clashes is certainly suspicious. The Syrian government is deeply unhappy about the creation of a UN tribunal to investigate the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, because it assumes (quite rightly) that the tribunal will blame Damascus. So maybe it told its proxies to start a little war in northern Lebanon. But that's just one possibility.
Fatah al-Islam, the group that carried out a bank raid in Tripoli on May 19 and then got involved in a huge firefight with the Lebanese army, is one of dozens of little bands of Islamist revolutionaries that have proliferated across the Arab world, taking al Qaeda as their model. It probably has a couple of hundred members, and it is based in Nahr el-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp just north of Tripoli.
Maybe Syrian intelligence spotted them and decided they would be useful, and maybe not. But they are perfectly capable of creating this mess on their own. The Middle East is full of plots, but it is also full of freelance extremists with nothing to lose.
Which brings us to Iraq, where the United States has launched a major exercise in blame-shifting. In recent days, American officials in Baghdad and in Washington have waxed eloquent (on a not-for-attribution basis) about Iran's key role in the troubles.
"Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq," a senior U.S. official in Iraq told Simon Tisdall of the Guardian. "They are behind a lot of high-profile attacks...directed by the Revolutionary Guard, who are connected right to the top [of the Iranian government]." Then he went on to say that Iran was not only supporting its traditional Shia allies in Iraq, but also "Syrian-backed Sunni Arab groups and al Qaeda."
Meanwhile, back in Washington, a "senior official" let it be known that "Iran is perpetuating the cycle of sectarian violence [in Iraq]. They bring Iraqi militia members and insurgent groups into Iran for training and then infiltrate them back into the country."
And the very heavens will fall if the wicked Iranians succeed in their nefarious scheme to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq "prematurely." It would be likely to trigger a regional war that would draw in the Sunni Arab Gulf states, Syria and Turkey. Indeed, it might awaken Godzilla from his long sleep and unleash him on the Middle East.
I made up the last bit, actually. But I didn't make up the rest, and yet there is no particular reason to believe that any of it is true. We are offered no evidence for all of these accusations and predictions, some of which seem highly improbable, like the allegation that Iran is getting cozy with al Qaeda.
Other bits might be true, but then again, as in the Lebanese case, they might not be. And there are strong grounds for suspicion, since this whole storyline so obviously serves the Bush administration.
The big question is whether it is just another attempt to explain away the U.S. failure in Iraq or part of a campaign to prepare the American public and global opinion for a U.S. attack on Iran. We will find out in due course.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.