Syria-fueled internal divisions coupled with an increasingly tense border with Israel threaten Lebanon’s fragile peace.
Following a sharp uptick in violence in Beirut and Tripoli in recent weeks, Lebanon threatens to descend into complete instability. Coupled with the country’s already fragile sectarian divides, the ongoing crisis in Syria is stoking tensions in Lebanon and recalling a violent past.
Droves of Lebanese Sunnis have joined the Free Syrian Army and other Syrian rebel militias in the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has claimed over 100,000 lives since March 2011.
On the other hand, thousands of Shia fighters with Hezbollah from southern Lebanon have fought alongside the Syrian army.
On Friday, a pair of bombs exploded outside busy mosques in the northern city of Tripoli, the center of a Sunni-majority part of the country. 47 people were killed and hundreds injured, according to The Washington Post.
Echoing the brutal 15-year civil war that drew regional intervention and left some 120,000 dead, heavily armed Sunni fighters swarmed the streets of Tripoli and, in some instances, traded fire with state security forces. Trucks packed with gunmen patrolled the streets of the city and closed off the area surrounding the attacked mosques.
President Michel Suleiman denounced the attacks, saying the “massacre targeted innocent civilians for terrorist and criminal purposes that are far from humanitarian values.”
Suleiman also called for “national solidarity to prevent the enemies of Lebanon from reaching their goals.” But few people believe the state — historically weak and unable to maintain security — can prevent the present situation from descending into more bloodshed.
The Shia political organization Hezbollah immediately condemned the attacks in a statement, describing them as “terrorist bombings” that are part of a “criminal project that aims to sow the seeds of civil strife between Lebanese and pull them into sectarian and ethnic fighting.”
The statement further pledged “the utmost solidarity” with Tripoli and the victims. Nonetheless, Hezbollah and its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah have already been accused by some of being the guilty party.
Additionally, the Tripoli attacks come in the wake of a car bombing in a southern Beirut suburb, a Shia-majority neighborhood and traditional base of support for Hezbollah. Shortly after the bombing, as dozens were put in body bags and hundreds hospitalized for treatment, a militant Sunni organization claimed responsibility in a video posted online.
Angered by Hezbollah’s support for Assad’s regime, masked men wielding rifles warned Nasrallah that “we decide the time and place of battle and we will always be there inside your own homes, a disaster for you, and you’ll continue to see more of this.”
Yet support for involvement in Syria remains solid among Hezbollah’s constituency, partially due to the fact that thousands of Lebanese Shiites live on the other side of the Syrian border as well as Assad’s longtime financial, political and military support for armed struggle against Israel from southern Lebanon.
Tensions with Israel
The Tripoli bombings came the same day as Israeli airstrikes on Naameh, a coastal town tucked between Beirut and Sidon. Israeli military officials claimed that a “terror site” was targeted in response to a string of rockets fired into northern Israel last Thursday.
However, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), whose base was hit, denied having fired into Israel. According to the BBC, “neither incident caused casualties or much damage.”
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a militant Sunni organization, claimed responsibility for the four rockets.
Tensions between Lebanese factions and Israel have soared in recent months, particularly following an Israeli military incursion into southern Lebanon earlier this month.
On August 6, four Israeli soldiers “crossed the Blue Line border on foot” and were subsequently injured by an explosive device, reported Al Jazeera English. Israeli military statements claimed that the device was a landmine.
According to the Lebanese news outlet Al-Akhbar English, the “10-minute encounter” was an “ambush that only [Hezbollah] could have set up, with explosive devices meant only for the Israelis.”
The article added that “Hezbollah has resolved not only to engage Israeli forces breaching the border, but is prepared for any confrontation, including a full-blown war.”
Long-term disputes, such as Israel’s regular violations of Lebanese airspace and the inability to hinder Israeli military action through the U.N., coupled alongside these recent flare-ups, run the risk of sparking a sustained military response from armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations.
Intervention in Syria
Following accusations of chemical weapons use in Syria, the United States has threatened to launch a military assault on the Assad regime.
“We are prepared, we have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take, if he wishes to take any of the options he’s asked for,” said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, as reported in The Guardian.
Hagel added that a ground invasion was not presently up for consideration, suggesting that the U.S. is preparing to launch an airstrike.
Regardless of the controversy over which side, in fact, used chemical weapons, or if they were used at all, the consequences of a foreign attack will not be confined within Syria’s borders.
Already harboring thousands of Syrian refugees in addition to the large Palestinian refugee community already present, a military strike against Syria also threatens to send a fresh wave of refugees into Lebanon.
Others worry that Western policy-makers, particularly those in the U.S., will seek to use the instability inflicted on Syria by military action as a means of reorganizing Lebanon’s own political community. Without Assad in power, Hezbollah will lose a key ally and possibly an important weapons route.
As Hiyam Kossayfi wrote, “regional pressure to form a government without Hezbollah is not isolated from the change of international mood concerning the Assad regime.”
Lebanon’s always-fragile political landscape cannot be separated from that of Syria — from the Syrian occupation of large swaths of the country that ended with the February 2005 “Cedar Revolution” to the Lebanese involvement in the ongoing crisis in Syria.
With growing internal rifts, increasing pressure from Israel and the prospect of a full-blown U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, both full-scale spillover from Syria and prolonged sectarian fighting are becoming increasingly likely in Lebanon
For Lebanon, much like Syria, all indicators suggest a grim future in which civilians carry the heaviest burden.