February 3, 2014
By Abdulrahman al-Masri and Alex Simon
AMMAN: The Lebanese branch of al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat a-Nusra has claimed credit for a car bombing in the Lebanese town of Hermel that killed three on Saturday just miles from the border with Syria, as repercussions from Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict on the regime’s behalf ripple throughout Lebanon.
Striking back at what it called the “party of Iran’s headquarters in [Hezbollah stronghold] Hermel,” Jabhat a-Nusra called “invasions to demolish their safe havens” as payback for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.
A-Nusra’s recently established branch in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the attacks, in coordination with the Abdullah al-Azzam brigades—another al-Qaeda affiliate—two weeks after another car bombing in Hermel on January 16th killed three people.
The 6:25 p.m. explosion was “caused by a suicide bomber driving a Grand Cherokee and exploding himself,” the Lebanese Army said in a statement Saturday.
After investigating the attack, the Lebanese Army released another statement on Sunday saying that military experts revealed that the amount of explosives used was likely “between 25 and 30 kg [of] explosive materials and a number of shells and grenades.”
Lebanese analysts and journalists have been saying for months that Syria’s rebels are seeking to drag Lebanon into the war as the price for Hezbollah’s role on the Syrian battlefield.
“The bombings are a way for the parties in Syria’s war to respond to Hezbollah’s involvement [there],” said Luna Safwan, a reporter with NOW Lebanon.
“What’s happening in Lebanon today is undeniably the result of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria,” she added. “By intervening, Hezbollah opened the door to chaos in Lebanon.”
A car bomb exploded at a gas station in Hermel Saturday. Photo courtesy of al-Manar.
A-Nusra also claimed responsibility for two car bombings killing nine people in another Hezbollah stronghold, the Haret Hreik neighborhood in the south Beirut suburb of a-Dahiya.
All four car-bombings came after a-Nusra threatened to increase its footprint in Lebanon in response to “the party of Iran’s entrance into Syria.”
As the sectarian rift grows in Lebanon, despite some Shiite opposition to Hezbollah intervention in Syria, “you will also see another instinct within the Shiite community which is a sense of threat from the outside and a desire to protect and close into [itself],” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior advisor at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program in Washington, DC.
Hermel has “paid its price for being loyal to the resistance,” Hezbollah’s television channel al-Manar reported Saturday, labeling it “the city of martyrs.”
On Sunday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported that government forces had foiled a “terrorist attempt” to cross from Lebanon into southern Homs province. The report comes three days after Lebanese police announced they had arrested three Syrians accused of holding allegiance to Jabhat a-Nusra.
The town of Hermel sits less than five kilometers from the Syrian village of al-Qusayr, where in June 2013 Hezbollah fighters provided tactical and combat support to Syrian troops in a key operation that allowed the Syrian government to connect the capital in Damascus with its coastal Mediterranean strongholds.
Though exact figures are hard to determine, an estimated 6,000 Hezbollah fighters have cycled in and out of Lebanon, most prominently combatting Syrian rebels in the aforementioned al-Qusayr, al-Qalamoun, Homs and the Damascus suburbs.
The bombings suggest Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has left the Shiite group vulnerable to cross-border infiltration and put Hezbollah’s civilian supporters at risk.
Hezbollah has “to ask the question, at what point are the risks that they assume by going all in in Syria undermining their security at home,” said Yacoubian.
“At what point does it become too much of a liability with respect to their own Shiite community?” she asked.
Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, is not so sure tit-for-tat sectarianism is an effective strategy for Syria’s rebels as they combat Hezbollah.
“Somebody coming and blowing himself up in [Hezbollah’s stronghold of] Dahiya is not a reason for a Lebanese Shiite to say ‘that’s it, no more,’” he said.
“As far as they see it, this is exactly the reason they’re fighting in Syria.”
Elizabeth Parker-Magyar contributed reporting.
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