Behind the Lines: At the edge of the abyss

Lebanon is moving ever closer to being swept into the Syrian civil war amid cross-border fire, rebel response to increasingly overt engagement of Hezbollah militants in fighting.

June 1, 2013 03:57
LEBANESE ARMY soldiers ride on their military vehicles in the port city of Tripoli, northern Lebanon

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.

What 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.

Some of 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 2008.

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 Sunni population.

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 half-comical figures.

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.

In the 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 neighborhood.

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 Mohsen.

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.

In one 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 Syria.

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.

As a 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.

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