Has the Syria Conflict Spread to Lebanon?

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This week’s blast in a southern suburb of Beirut, traditionally a stronghold of the Hezbollah movement, has raised fears that the Syrian conflict has finally come to Lebanon. The reaction by the various political factions in Lebanon has been one of condemnation, although under that thin layer of unity, it is easy to detect an implicit criticism of the actions and policies of one party or the other. Given its extensive and public involvement in Syria, it is perhaps understandable that Hezbollah’s actions are the ones that have come under scrutiny; although the Iranians and some within Lebanon have been quick to include Israel in their criticism as well. In any case, it is clear to everyone that Lebanon’s lack of political and social unity has made the country an easy target for those aiming to destabilize the country and the region.

The responsibility for the bombing has been taken by a Syrian rebel group which according to various news reports “claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that hit the southern suburbs of Beirut on Tuesday, wounding 53 people. It also claimed it was behind an attack on a Hezbollah convoy in eastern Lebanon on June 28. The group, named the Special Forces 313 Brigade, uses the black, red, green and white colors of the flag of the Syrian opposition, and Islamic terminology…. ‘We warned again and again against (Hezbollah’s) intervention in Syria,’ the brigade added. It cited “the failure of Lebanese politicians to control” the party as one of the reasons for the attack.”

In a round-up of the reactions from Lebanese politicians, the Al Manar staff reported that “The blast that hit Tuesday the southern suburb of Beirut (Dahiyeh) was widely condemned by the Lebanese political parties and figures as an act aiming at stirring sectarian sedition….Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri considered that the blast aims at causing a high death toll and at stirring sedition among the Lebanese. Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati denounced Bir Al-Abed blast which returned to memories hard times that the Lebanese suffered from long time ago.  Mikati also called upon all the Lebanese to preserve their national unity….Former PM Saad Hariri also denounced the attack, saying ‘this criminal blast in the Southern Suburb of Beirut imposes on all the Lebanese parties to return back to the national dialogue.’ Hariri also called for intensified investigations to solve the crime and to drag the perpetrators to justice.”

Despite the calls for unity and putting aside sectarian interests, these same groups were quick to start pointing fingers at those who they thought bore the main responsibility for the attacks. The Daily Star reports that for the Hezbollah leaders, the real cause of the blast was the incendiary language and the refusal of the opposition to join the government: “Hezbollah MP Hussein Musawi said Wednesday fiery rhetoric led to the bombing that ripped through Beirut’s southern suburb and will be the cause of more bloodshed to come. Musawi also criticized his rivals in the March 14 coalition, saying their refusal to join a government which includes Hezbollah is deluded….Tensions are simmering in Lebanon over Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting next door. The March 14 group refused to form a new government with Hezbollah until the party ends its activities in Syria, a conflict that has taken a sectarian turn.”

The Iranians on the other hand have expressed their suspicions toward Israel, which according to a declaration made by an Iranian official and carried on the Iranian daily Press TV, is the real culprit: “The Iranian ambassador to Beirut says the Israeli regime plotted the recent bombing attack in Lebanon with the aim of undermining the Arab country’s security and stability. Ghazanfar Roknabadi made the remark in a Tuesday meeting with Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel….The Lebanese minister, for his part, said the Israeli regime has derived the greatest benefit possible from such terrorist attacks, stressing that Lebanon is in need of stability and unity more than ever as the country is expected to hold elections in the coming year.”

Tehran Times, another Iranian daily, refers to a statement by Iran’s Foreign Minister who believes “that the target of the blast was to put rival Lebanese groups, which have taken different positions in the Syrian conflict, against each other. The powerful blast was the worst explosion to hit the area in years. During the phone conversation, [Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar] Salehi said that the attack showed the desperation of the enemies of Lebanon, led by the Zionist regime, adding that it was meant to sow sectarian strife among Muslim in the country.”

In Israel meanwhile, the blast has been interpreted as an unmistakable sign that the Syrian conflict has finally reached Lebanon’s heartland. Jerusalem Post’s Ariel Ben Solomon for example cites several Israeli security experts who maintain that “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….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.”

This assessment appears to be shared by several editorials and commentaries in Lebanon and across the region. The Daily Star (Lebanon) editorial for example cautions against continued political instability in the country: “Tuesday’s car bomb in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which injured dozens, must be taken as a much-needed wake-up call to the country’s politicians and parties to stabilize this country once and for all, and before it is too late….If the country has any hope of withstanding any such further attacks, it is imperative that petty rivalries be set aside, and the political gaps be dealt with as soon as possible….For any chance of confronting any such future threats, it is therefore necessary for a government to be formed, and Parliament to be reignited, so that the institutions tasked with investigating such crimes can be given all the support they need.”

The Khaleej Times editorial on the other hand connects the turmoil in Syria with what is going on in Lebanon, noting “The deadly car bomb blast that rocked a Beirut district, which is incidentally controlled by the Hezbollah, sends a message of Lebanon once again becoming a proxy for vested interests in the region….This panicking state of affairs demands genuine leadership, and that could only be possible if political and security related stakeholders of Lebanon sit together and map out a strategy to deal with such eventualities. Until that is done, instant reactions from splinter groups in and out of Lebanon will keep the country in a state of shock and awe.”

And finally, Al Hayat’s Randa Takieddine calls for Hezbollah to reconsider its involvement in Syria, seeing as it exposes the organization to charges of hypocrisy and wrecking havoc on Lebanon’s domestic  stability: “The biggest mistake is that Hezbollah continues to take part in the fighting in Syria, because it will bring a calamity to Lebanon and increase Sunni-Shiite tension, which is becoming more dangerous every day….Hezbollah’s participation in the fighting in Syria exposed everything the party claimed about being a resistance party, and that its weapons were aimed at Israel. It is fighting for Iran in Syria to resist the Syrian people, who have been displaced by their regime’s fighting and its president’s insistence on remaining….The danger for Lebanon is growing under such circumstances. The rising Sunni-Shiite tension is a disaster for the country. The Salafist Ahmad al-Assir and his followers, and the participation by Hezbollah in fighting in Syria…are all elements of destabilization of a country.

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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