Lebanon Pulse

Lebanon Risks Becoming More Like Iraq Than Syria

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Article Summary
The nature of back-and-forth Shiite-Sunni fighting in Lebanon more closely resembles the conflict raging in Iraq than the one in neighboring Syria.

Lebanon’s slide into the Syrian quagmire has become fact and reality. Hezbollah’s intervention in the war there, and its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s announcement that its participation there would continue, and in fact even intensify, has made it clear — on a political and security level — that Lebanon is now part of the Syrian crisis and not merely affected by its repercussions. This characterization is most likely enhanced by actions from the other side, whereby Sunni Salafist factions seem to have retaliated for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria by carrying out car bomb attacks against the party in Lebanon. The last of these was the Ruwais explosion that targeted a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburb, one of Hezbollah’s most important strongholds in the country.

The prevailing warnings of the past few weeks about Lebanon sliding toward a gradual sectarian Sunni-Shiite war have become more consequential. The last two weeks witnessed an intensification of reciprocal retaliatory kidnappings in the northern Bekaa region between adjacent Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, as Salafist groups planted explosive devices targeting Hezbollah convoys along the Beirut-Masnaa road leading to Syria.

Expectations currently are that this security war will greatly escalate in the form of recurrent bomb attacks and rocket launches targeting Hezbollah, as the latter intensifies its security efforts to dismantle Salafist cells operating against it. This security conflict is not taking place in a vacuum, but is occurring amid extreme sectarian polarization — particularly among Shiites and Sunnis — throughout Lebanon. This was evidenced by Sunni Salafists handing out sweets in Tripoli to celebrate and gloat over the Ruwais explosion. Similar incidents occur in Shiite neighborhoods when the Syrian army achieves victories over Sunni Islamist factions inside Syria.

It has become clear today that Hezbollah’s participation in the fighting in Syria was, in the party’s view, a strategic necessity that is not open to compromise. In contrast, the Salafist factions probably will not back down from their efforts to shift their war from Syria to Lebanon, if the party fails to withdraw from Syria. The two sides are now at the point of no return, and both claim that their fight is a defensive one. The Salafists crossing the Lebanese-Syrian border say that Hezbollah initiated the battle against them when it ventured outside its borders to fight in a war that it has no business being involved in. Hezbollah, meanwhile, asserts that it went to fight them in Syria because it was leery of Islamist rebels coming to fight it in Lebanon once they succeeded in vanquishing the Syrian regime.

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The most dangerous aspect of the escalating war is the fear that it will cross its current boundaries and will not remain confined to reciprocally painful security strikes between Hezbollah and the Salafists, which would come to echo the great tensions engendered by their war in Syria. The Ruwais attack greatly reflects the fact that the conflict in Lebanon is heading toward becoming more akin to the one underway in Iraq than the one in Syria. For in Syria, fighting is taking place along established fronts with hit-and-run military operations, interspersed by bomb attacks. In Iraq, on the other hand, the nature of the war between Sunnis and Shiites is characterized by its randomness and destructiveness, as both sides target the others' cities and neighborhoods with powerful bomb attacks.

The Ruwais explosion, which killed close to 30 Shiites and wounded dozens, gave the impression that the Salafists are now using the Iraqi model in their fight against Hezbollah in Lebanon. In his first speech after the Ruwais explosion, Nasrallah warned that he may not be able to rein in his supporters if such attacks continue. He hinted that the Shiites might react with random acts of violence against Sunnis, if Shiites continued to be targeted. Nasrallah’s apparent warning suggests that Lebanon risks — if a miracle does not happen to put an end to the ongoing security war — falling victim to the Iraqi model, which would be more dangerous than any repercussions emanating from the Syrian crisis.

The situation in Lebanon is expected to become worse, mainly because the two sides will not back down from their strategic decisions, which caused the current confrontation between them. Hezbollah will never withdraw from Syria, as its secretary-general declared after the Ruwais explosion, and the Salafists will not stop fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon, as long as the latter remains in Syria to fight alongside the regime.

Assessment

Based on prevalent security and political assessments inside official and partisan Lebanese circles, the coming days are likely to witness more security incidents targeting Hezbollah neighborhoods, as well as Hezbollah’s logistical, security and political infrastructure. The factions executing or backing these operations are wagering on the premise that draining Hezbollah’s resources in Lebanon will force it to reduce its intervention in Syria. Despite Nasrallah’s assertion that such attempts will fail to break his resolve, these factions believe their premise remains valid because — no matter how strong the party is — in their view, it is incapable of fighting on two raging fronts: the open security front in Lebanon and the open military front in Syria.

In response, Hezbollah has, during the past days, endeavored to make it clear that it is ready to simultaneously fight on more than one front. The ambush it orchestrated against an Israeli Golani Brigade special forces unit that crossed into Lebanon in Labbouneh and injured four Israeli soldiers was exploited by Hezbollah in the media to bolster its contention that participating in the Syrian war had not diminished its security and military readiness along the southern Lebanese front with Israel. In that regard, there are some who believe that the Ruwais explosion, which constituted a breach in the security of Hezbollah neighborhoods, may have also been part of an Israeli retaliation to the Labbouneh ambush. Yet, Nasrallah, although keeping it within the realm of possibilities, ruled out that likelihood in principle in his recent speech because he wanted to concentrate on the supposition that takfiri factions were behind the explosion to punish Hezbollah for its participation in the Syrian war. 

At times, Al-Monitor withholds the bylines of our correspondents for the protection of our authors. Different authors may have written the individual stories identified on this page.

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Found in: syria, sunni, shiite, salafists, lebanon, iraq, hezbollah

At times, Al-Monitor withholds the bylines of our correspondents for the protection of our authors. Different authors may have written the individual stories identified on this page.

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