July 24, 2020

Lebanon Shaken by Car Bomb in Dahiyeh



Jerusalem Post, 12/7.

A car bomb exploded on Tuesday of this week in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of south Beirut. At least 53 people were wounded. There were no fatalities. The bomb left a crater 2 meters deep. Bir al-Abed is situated in the heart of the Dahiyeh section of the city – home to the headquarters of Hizballah and the place of residence of many of its most senior cadres.

A little known Syrian rebel group, the ‘Brigade 313 Special Forces’ has claimed responsibility for the bombing on its Facebook page. The statement cited Hizballah’s involvement in Syria as its motive.

The credibility of this claim of responsibility remains subject to doubt. But few in Lebanon doubt that the bombing formed part of the overflow of sectarian strife taking place because of Hizballah’s entry into the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime.

The Bir al-Abed car bombing is the latest in a chain of recent events which are gradually raising the sectarian temperature in Lebanon to boiling point. While global and regional media attention focuses on events in Egypt, the Lebanese are witnessing an ominous deterioration toward possible renewed conflict. In contrast to previous episodes of civil strife in the country, this time around, Lebanon’s Christians are an irrelevance. The emerging conflict is between Sunni and Shia.

In late June, the Lebanese army fought a pitched battle in Abra, near the southern Lebanese port of Sidon, against supporters of the Sunni Salafi cleric Ahmed al-Assir. Assir emerged in the last two years as the most prominent and outspoken Sunni critic of Hizballah’s de facto domination of Lebanon.

The battles began after followers of Assir ambushed an army checkpoint. This event triggered what looked like a pre-planned assault on Assir’s infrastructure in Abra. 18 soldiers and at least 29 of Assir’s gunmen were killed in the subsequent two day battle. It ended with the storming of Assir’s headquarters on June 24th. The firebrand Sunni cleric has not been seen since. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

The fighting in the Sidon area, however, was not only between Assir’s followers and the Lebanese Armed Forces. Western reporters on the scene noted the arrival of Hizballah fighters to the city, and their participation on the side of the army and against Assir.

These Hizballah elements included both regular Hizballah fighters and members of the movement’s auxiliary ‘Saraya al-Muqawama’ (Resistance Brigades). The latter is a less well trained body consisting of non-Shia Lebanese who support Hizballah.

The role of Hizballah in the Sidon events has been denied by spokesmen of the movement, and downplayed by Lebanese officials who prefer to deny the emergent sectarian strife in the country.

It has been well noted, however, in the Sunni Islamist circles from which Assir himself emerged. Large protests were held in the first days of July, in areas associated with the Salafi Islamist trend with which Assir was associated. Shots were fired in the air in the northern city of Tripoli. The Tariq Jdeideh neighborhood of Beirut, long associated with Sunni radicalism, also witnessed a large gathering.

These areas witnessed raucous celebrations following the car bomb in Bir el-Abed. In Tripoli, Salafi activists gave out sweets to passers-by, to celebrate the bombing, in a manner reminiscent of Hizballah and Hamas’s practice..

It is not yet definitively clear whether this bombing was initiated by Lebanese Sunni Islamists, or their counterparts in Syria, the ‘Brigade 313’s’ statement notwithstanding. The latter remains by far the most likely option. The Syrian rebels have made clear that they regard Hizballah targets within Lebanon as fair game, because of the Lebanese Shia movement’s intensive involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Indeed, the Dahiyeh area has already been targeted. In May, two rockets were fired on the Shiyah district in the area. Syrian rebels have also struck on a number of occasions at the Shia border town of Hermel, in retaliation for Hizballah’s own cross border activity.

But the distinction between Syrian or Lebanese elements in this context is anyway largely meaningless. If Syrian rebels did indeed carry out the Bir al-Abed attack, it means that elements among them now have both the will and the ability to physically infiltrate a car laden with explosives into Hizballah’s most security rich and well-guarded environment. This could in any case almost certainly only be achieved with the help of local allies.

And if by any chance this bombing or other acts of violence do turn out to be the result of local initiatives – the rising Sunni Islamist anger and confidence in Lebanon is in any case a direct result of the Sunni rebellion in Syria.

Either way, what this bombing means is that in the last month, the Syrian civil war finally arrived, conclusively, in the heart of Lebanon.

Responses to the attack were instructive. Former Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri described it as an ‘attempt by the Israeli enemy to push Lebanon to strife by organizing terror attacks.’

Such statements should be seen in the context of a widespread dread among non-Salafi and non-Hizballah Lebanese at the prospect of renewed civil strife, of which the bombing may be a harbinger.

Blaming the all-purpose scapegoat Israel is a way of avoiding the evident reality of increasing sectarian tensions. The Lebanese are supposed to unite against the imaginary threat of Israeli car bombings in Beirut. But Hariri’s statement reflects the helplessness of the March 14 coalition of which he is a part.

The civilian politics of March 14 have long proved irrelevant against the guns of Hizballah. Lebanon is in a state of political paralysis. There is much anger in the Lebanese Sunni population, also among supporters of March 14, at the recent Abra events.

The bombing in Bir el-Abed suggests a different approach to dealing with the deadlock.

Given the political impasse, the obvious immovability of Hizballah by any means other than force, and the example of the Syrian rebellion, this approach is likely to become increasingly in evidence in the period ahead.

About Jonathan Spyer

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His blog can be followed at: http://jonathanspyer.com/.