Car bomb in Hezbollah stronghold a sign of Syrian spillover

In recent years, Hezbollah has been on guard mostly against Israel, but the growing power of Sunni Islamist forces in the region, and the ongoing civil war next door, are increasingly challenging its dominance in Lebanon.

July 10, 2013 05:45
2 minute read.
Explosion in Hezbollah stronghold in South Beirut, July 9, 2013

Beirut explosion370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The devastating car bomb attack in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold on the eve of Ramadan on Tuesday may symbolize the movement’s greater vulnerability to attacks by opposing ideological forces in Lebanon and Syria.

In recent years, Hezbollah seemed to be on guard mostly against Israeli attacks or espionage, but now the growing power of Sunni Islamist forces in the region and the ongoing civil war next door, in which it is deeply involved, increasingly challenge Hezbollah’s dominance of its home turf.

The spread of the Syrian sectarian conflict into Lebanon seems to be growing by the week, and the attack may have been perpetrated by Sunni Islamist rebel forces based in Syria or possibly by local Sunni jihadist forces sympathetic to Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, who is on the run after facing off against the army in Sidon.

Sunnis blamed Hezbollah for being behind the attack on Assir and his forces, and former prime minister Saad Hariri said that the Shi’ite group triggered the tensions by putting up security outposts and provoking residents of the city.

Assir did not evoke sympathy from all Sunnis, yet many see a double standard in the army’s tough response in Sidon versus its inaction against Hezbollah, such as earlier this month when its fighters killed an unarmed protester in Beirut – in plain view of the military.

Hariri came out on Tuesday blaming Israel for the Beirut bombing.

As quoted in the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, he said: “[The blast] requires the highest level of awareness and vigilance in the face of dangers that surround the country and the entire region, especially while facing attempts by the Israeli enemy to push [Lebanon] to strife by organizing terrorist attacks, as happened today.”

Harel Chorev-Halewa, a researcher at The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post that the reactions from mainstream Sunni leaders are very interesting, and in particular Hariri’s mentioning of Israel was notable since it is “not his typical response.”

“It clearly expresses their anxiety of the possibility that the Syrian war will finally infiltrate the Lebanese border and lead to Sunni-Shi’ite bloodshed inside Lebanon,” he said.

Chorev-Halewa assumes that the perpetrator was likely an al-Qaida-linked organization – such as Jabhat al-Nusra – responding to Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian conflict.

A unit of the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack on its Facebook page Tuesday, claiming it was a response for the onslaught in Homs and the participation there of Hezbollah fighters. The claim could not be verified.

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that he is not sure if the blast is related to the Assir situation, but that it is more likely “a result of Hezbollah’s involvement in Homs, so it is probably linked to the Syrian situation.”

Badran said that sources in Beirut told him that two weeks ago, before the Assir incident, there was another car bomb on its way that was intercepted in the Mar Mikhael area. Hence, Hezbollah’s idea that its involvement in Syria “could be cordoned off and kept in Syria – as per Nasrallah’s speech – was always fanciful.”

He added that the more these kinds of bombings are able to slip through and hit Hezbollah areas, the higher it will raise the cost of the organization’s role in the Syrian conflict.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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