BEIRUT: Experts warned that Thursday’s bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs was likely a precursor to more attacks against Hezbollah over its involvement in the Syrian conflict, but said the party would remain defiant and continue its struggle alongside Bashar Assad’s regime.
They said the significance of the incident lay not in the type of attack, a car bomb that claimed two dozen lives and wounded several hundred, but in the mere fact that it took place deep inside Hezbollah-controlled territory.
“Whoever did the attack wanted to send Hezbollah a message and its supporters a message, and I don’t think it’s going to stop there,” said Sami Moubayed, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and an expert on Syria and Lebanon. Moubayed said the attack was significant because it targeted “one of the most well-protected areas in Beirut.”
The perpetrators are warning the party to stay out of Syria or it will be targeted everywhere, said Moubayed. Still, he said the attack would not deter Hezbollah from its goals in Syria.
“As long as Syria is on fire, the entire region will be up in flames,” he said. “I don’t see a way out for anybody.”
Lebanese politicians blamed Israel and jihadists for the attack, and a group calling itself the “Regiments of Aisha, Mother of the Faithful” claimed responsibility in a video published online.
Sources following the official response to the attack said government efforts were reacting to two possibilities: Israeli involvement or takfiri jihadist groups angry at the party’s involvement in Syria. They said combating the threat should include establishing an overall security plan and warning citizens against contributing to sectarian tension.
Moubayed said that no group could be ruled out until the investigation was completed.
Hassan Hassan, a UAE-based Syrian writer who has written extensively on the conflict in his country, said there were several armed groups with the name, spread throughout the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, Hama and elsewhere.
The group’s name has sectarian significance, since it refers to the days of Islam’s earliest civil conflict. Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Mohammad, was opposed to Ali bin Abi Taleb, the Prophet’s cousin and one of the most venerated figures in Shiite Islam.
But Hassan said the rebel groups carrying the name were not overtly sectarian, and he believed it unlikely that a Syrian rebel group carried out the attack, but did not rule out the possibilitythat the operation was privately funded, to stir sectarian hatred.
“The group that is most likely to target civilians in Beirut in a suicide attack is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and that group does not shy away from endorsing such attacks,” he said. “There is always a possibility, however, that sectarian private donors have funded that specific operation against Hezbollah and chose the name to emphasize its sectarian nature.”
Hassan said the attack was clearly a result of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and that such attacks are to be expected. However, he speculated that they were unlikely to increase in frequency because they come as the party’s influence declines, as more and more Lebanese figures and parties become uneasy about Hezbollah’s military activities in Syria.
“The party’s main patrons in Syria are embattled and will eventually be replaced by a Sunni-dominated administration that will likely be hostile to it,” Hassan said.
Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence and author of “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God,” said it was clear the party’s involvement in Syria was enflaming sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who testified in support of Hezbollah’s blacklisting as a terrorist organization before the European Parliament, said that Hezbollah had expected such an attack, but the bombing may lead residents of the southern suburbs to question whether the party can keep them safe, and to calls for retaliation that will deepen Lebanon’s sectarian divide.
“If this continues, at a certain point you may need a passport to enter Dahiyeh,” he said, referring to the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.
But Levitt said he expected Hezbollah to remain defiant.
“I do not think they will scale back in Syria. Hezbollah and Iran both tend to feel that when the going gets tough, the tough dig deeper, and Hezbollah is not the type to be bullied, and I think that they fear showing weakness,” he said. “They might try to find some face-saving way out of Syria eventually, but not right now, not as a result of this bomb.” – additional reporting by Antoine Ghattas Saab