Lebanese army on tank 370.
(photo credit: Omar Ibrahim/Reuters)
Two Grad rockets were fired this week at the south Beirut suburb of Shiyah. This
district borders Dahiyeh – the stronghold in the city which houses the main
offices of Hezbollah. The decision to strike so close to Hezbollah’s nerve
center is a dramatic escalation by the Syrian rebels of their simmering conflict
with the Lebanese Shi’ite militia.
The official leadership of the Free
Syrian Army repudiated earlier claims of responsibility for the rocket fire
issued in its name. But the official leadership of the FSA does not in fact
command the mainly Sunni Islamist men who do the actual fighting in Syria for
the rebellion. So their statements are of only secondary importance.
is happening is that Hezbollah’s longstanding but increasingly overt engagement
in the war in Syria is now being paid back in kind by the rebels.
Hezbollah’s best fighters have for the past 10 days been spearheading a
relentless regime advance into the city of Qusair. They are now two-thirds of the
way into the city, pushing northwards.
The going has been tougher than
expected. The rebels have fought for every inch of ground. But the Lebanese
Shi’ite fighters, backed up by regime artillery and air power, are moving
forward.The fighting in Qusair
does not represent the opening of a new
front. Rather, it is the most intensive manifestation of a long active sector of
the war, in which Hezbollah and President Bashar Assad’s forces battle rebels in
the poorly demarcated border zone between Syria and Lebanon. This reporter wrote
as far back as October last year that “whatever the tactical details – the FSA
and Hezbollah are already at war.”
But Hezbollah for a long time
preferred to blur its own role in the fighting. It claimed that the Shi’ite
fighters on the ground were local Syrian villagers, who had requested assistance
and advice from the terrorist group.
No longer. A week into the fight for
Qusair, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued a ringing declaration promising
victory to his followers.
It has evidently occurred to elements among the
Syrian rebels that if Hezbollah can interfere in their dispute, they can return
the compliment. Hezbollah dominance has been apparent in Lebanon ever since the
Shi’ite brushed aside Sa’ad Hariri’s feeble challenge to its authority in May
The movement’s ascendancy has never been accepted by all. But
neither the urbane followers of Hariri, nor the divided and declining
Christians, nor the ever pragmatic and few in number Druse, were able to pose
any kind of a challenge. It was long clear that if a challenge were to come, it
could come from one quarter only – that of the Islamists among the Lebanese
For a long period, though, a challenge from that
quarter also seemed unlikely. Lebanon’s Sunnis do not have a long tradition of
militancy. Hezbollah’s Iransupplied weaponry and expertise seemed to conclude
the argument. Sunni radical preachers such as Sidon’s Ahmed al-Assir were
No one is laughing now. The Syrian civil war has
altered the power calculus in Lebanon. The Salafi Islamists of Lebanon have
noted the emergence of an insurgency dominated by their ideological compatriots
in Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Syrian rebels, meanwhile, battle
Hezbollah forces in Homs province and the Damascus area, and observe that their
enemies have a backyard in which they are vulnerable.
The Lebanese Sunni
Islamist and the Syrian rebels have therefore now begun to strike Hezbollah in
its underbelly – Lebanon itself. The Grads in south Beirut were only the most
graphic demonstration of the opening of a new front in Lebanon.
northern city of Tripoli, the long smoldering conflict between pro-rebel
Islamist gunmen in the city’s Bab al-Tabaneh neighborhood and the pro-Assad
Alawites of the Jebel Mohsen district once again broke out into the open. Over
30 people died and more than 200 have been wounded as the Sunni Islamists,
thought to include Jabhat al-Nusra members, descended on the rival
Their act came only days after the opening of the assault
on Qusair city. There are fears that if and when Qusair falls to the regime, the
Islamists in Tripoli will seek to exact their vengeance on the people of Jebel
Which means that Tripoli has now, in effect, become an outlying
sector in the Syrian civil war. There have been further rocket attacks by rebels
across the Syrian border on the Hezbollah-supporting Hermel area. And rebels
have issued a number of blood-curdling threats against Hezbollah.
video, commanders and fighters of Aleppo’s Tawhid Brigade threatened to “target
the locations” of Hezbollah everywhere, in response to the party’s engagement in
The Tawhid commander further warned that unless the Beirut
government restrained Hezbollah, the rebels “will have to move the battle to
Lebanon,” and that “our developed rockets will then target Beirut’s southern
suburb and beyond… and I will give directions to the revolutionaries in Syria to
attack the gangs of Hezbollah in all Shi’ite villages.”
Another group of
rebels in Qusair accused senior Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine of
leading forces in the city and vowed to kill him. They referred to militia
leader Nasrallah as “Hassan Nasr a-Shaytan” (Hassan, victory of Satan). In
Sidon, too, followers of Assir fought with Hezbollah-supporting members of the
so-called Resistance Brigades. Shots were fired outside of the Bilal Ibn Rabah
Mosque, where Assir is the imam.
What all this adds up to is that the
sectarian balance of power in Lebanon is ripe for shifting as a result of the
emergence of the Sunni insurgency in Syria. Hezbollah chose or was instructed by
its Iranian patron to go all in to help save their ally in Damascus.
result, Lebanon is now being drawn inexorably closer to the flames of the Syrian
civil war. The explosions in the Shiyah district may well be remembered as the
decisive opening shots to renewed civil strife in Lebanon.