February 3, 2014
A car bombing Saturday night shook the Shiite-majority town of Hermel along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, marking the latest in a growing string of attacks targeting areas in Lebanon where Hezbollah enjoys widespread support.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat a-Nusra’s Lebanese branch claimed responsibility for the attack—the fourth of its kind in Lebanon since late December and the seventh since last summer. The attack, a-Nusra’s statement said, was a response to Hezbollah’s “insistence on sending more mercenaries to kill the Syrian people.”
The uptick in spillover violence targeting Hezbollah strongholds has coincided with the group’s increasingly open intervention on behalf of the Syrian government, first during the battle for Qusayr in summer 2013 and, more recently, in the joint regime-Hezbollah campaign for control of Syria’s strategic Qalamoun mountain range along the country’s border with Lebanon.
Luna Safwan is a Beirut-based journalist with NOW Lebanon, where her work focuses on the Syrian crisis. Her report on Syrian refugees in the Lebanese border town of Arsal won a Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press in 2013. She explains to Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri that ‘the crisis has begun in Lebanon,’ and, she adds, is only getting worse.
Q: How would you describe the car bombings carried out by al-Qaeda linked groups in residential areas of Beirut?
First of all, the car bombings have been taking place in Shiite areas, not just Beirut—specifically, in Dahiya and in the Bekaa valley, as was the case [Saturday night] in Hermel. The attacks target Shiites specifically. And why Dahiya? It’s one of Hezbollah’s main bases. Why Hermel? Hezbollah used to use it as an entry point into Syria, during the battle for Qusayr, etc.
These bombings could be a response to Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict. They’re a way for the parties in Syria’s war to respond to Hezbollah’s involvement, and to drag the Shia into what’s very much a sectarian conflict.
Q: Do you hold Hezbollah responsible for what’s been happening in Lebanon?
I think Hezbollah underestimated the complexity of what’s happening in Syria, and as a result didn’t consider the consequences of its decision to enter the conflict. What’s happening in Lebanon today is undeniably the result of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria—by intervening, Hezbollah opened the door to chaos in Lebanon.
Q: Where is the Lebanese army in all of this? And is it correct that Hezbollah controls the army, in one way or another?
The Lebanese army is timid. It’s been timid in calming things down in [the northern, multi-sectarian city of] Tripoli—how is it going to rein things in on the border? It was largely incapable of stopping the bloodshed in Tripoli.
The army is infiltrated by Hezbollah, not controlled by it, because most of the army’s soldiers are Sunni, and some of its leaders are Christians. It’s very diverse, but that doesn’t mean that its components are free of Hezbollah influence.
Q: Finally, what do you think is the best way to avoid a full-fledged crisis in Lebanon?
In an ideal world, I would say Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria, the fall of the Syrian regime and a move toward a transitional period where Syria is left for Syrians, based on agreement from America and Iran. This would be followed by Iran’s departure from the Lebanese orbit, Hezbollah surrendering its weapons to the Lebanese army, and a clear delineation of the Lebanon-Syria border, with international forces deployed along it.
Q: And would you say this is impossible outside of an ideal world?
In the real world, I would say that the crisis has begun in Lebanon, and it will increase in severity, and it will not be possible to stop it—even if Hezbollah were to withdraw from Syria. Perhaps not impossible, but difficult.
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.