A car bomb exploded this past Tuesday in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of south
Though there were no fatalities, at least 53 people were wounded
and the bomb left a crater two meters deep.
Bir al-Abed is situated in
the heart of the Dahiyeh section of the city – home to the headquarters of
Hezbollah and the place of residence of many of its most senior cadres.
little-known Syrian rebel group, the Brigade 313 Special Forces, has claimed
responsibility for the bombing on its Facebook page – citing Hezbollah’s
involvement in Syria as its motive.
The credibility of this claim of
responsibility remains subject to doubt. But few in Lebanon doubt that the
bombing formed part of the overflow of sectarian strife, taking place due to
Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian civil war on behalf of Bashar Assad’s
The Bir al-Abed car bombing is the latest in a chain of recent
events which are gradually raising the sectarian temperature in Lebanon to a
While global and regional media attention focuses on
events in Egypt, the Lebanese are witnessing an ominous deterioration toward
possible renewed conflict.
In contrast to previous episodes of civil
strife in the country, this time around, Lebanon’s Christians are irrelevant.
The emerging conflict, instead, is between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
June, the Lebanese army fought a pitched battle in Abra near the southern port
of Sidon, against supporters of the Sunni Salafi cleric Ahmed al-Assir. Assir
has emerged in the last two years as the most prominent and outspoken Sunni
critic of Hezbollah’s de facto domination of Lebanon.
The battles began
after followers of Assir ambushed an army checkpoint, triggering what looked
like a preplanned assault on the cleric’s infrastructure in Abra. 18 soldiers
and at least 29 of Assir’s gunmen were killed in the subsequent two-day battle,
which ended with the storming of Assir’s headquarters on June 24. The firebrand
Sunni has not been seen since; a warrant has been issued for his
The fighting in the Sidon area, however, was not only between
Assir’s followers and the Lebanese Armed Forces. Western reporters on the scene
noted the arrival of Hezbollah fighters to the city, and their participation on
the side of the army, against Assir.
These Hezbollah elements included
both regular Hezbollah fighters and members of the movement’s auxiliary Saraya
al-Muqawama (Resistance Brigades) – a less well-trained body consisting of
non-Shi’ite Lebanese who support Hezbollah.
The role of Hezbollah in the
Sidon events has been denied by movement spokesmen and downplayed by Lebanese
officials, who prefer to deny the emergent sectarian strife in the
It has been well-noted, however, in the Sunni Islamist circles
from which Assir himself emerged.
Large protests were held in the first
days of July, in areas associated with the Salafi Islamist trend of which Assir
is a part, and shots were fired in the air in the northern city of Tripoli. The
Tariq Jdeideh neighborhood of Beirut, long associated with Sunni radicalism,
also witnessed a large gathering.
These areas also were the setting for
raucous celebrations following the car bomb in Bir el-Abed. In Tripoli, Salafi
activists gave out sweets to passersby in celebration of the bombing, in a
practice reminiscent of Hezbollah and Hamas.
It is not yet definitively
clear whether this bombing was initiated by Lebanese Sunni Islamists or their
counterparts in Syria, the Brigade 313 statement notwithstanding.
latter remains by far the most likely option. The Syrian rebels have made clear
that they regard Hezbollah targets within Lebanon as fair game, because of the
Lebanese Shi’ite movement’s intensive involvement in the Syrian
Indeed, the Dahiyeh area has already been targeted. In May, two
rockets were fired on the Shiyah district in the area. Syrian rebels have also
struck on a number of occasions at the Shi’ite border town of Hermel, in
retaliation for Hezbollah’s own cross-border activity.
distinction between Syrian or Lebanese elements in this context is largely
If Syrian rebels did indeed carry out the Bir al-Abed
attack, it means that elements among them now have both the will and the ability
to physically plant a car laden with explosives in Hezbollah’s most security-
rich and well-guarded environment.
This could almost certainly only be
achieved with the help of local allies.
And if, by any chance, this
bombing or other acts of violence do turn out to be the result of local
initiatives, the rising Sunni Islamist anger and confidence in Lebanon is a
direct result of the Sunni rebellion in Syria.
Either way, what this
bombing means is that in the last month, the Syrian civil war finally
conclusively arrived in the heart of Lebanon.
Responses to the attack
were instructive. Former prime minister Sa’ad al-Hariri described it as an
“attempt by the Israeli enemy to push Lebanon to strife by organizing terror
Such statements should be seen in the context of a widespread
dread among non-Salafi and Hezbollah Lebanese at the prospect of renewed civil
strife, of which the bombing may be a harbinger. Blaming the all purpose
scapegoat Israel is a way of avoiding the evident reality of increasing
sectarian tensions. The Lebanese are supposed to unite against the imaginary
threat of Israeli car bombings in Beirut.
But Hariri’s statement reflects
the helplessness of the March 14 Alliance of which he is a part. The civilian
politics of March 14 have long proved irrelevant against the guns of
Lebanon is in a state of political paralysis. There is much
anger in the Lebanese Sunni population at the recent Abra events, also among
supporters of March 14.
The bombing in Bir el-Abed suggests a different
approach to dealing with the deadlock.
Given the political impasse, the
obvious immovability of Hezbollah by any means other than force and the example
of the Syrian rebellion, this approach is likely to become increasingly in
evidence in the period ahead.