BEIRUT: Hezbollah supporters are pressing the party’s leadership to take direct action to curb the spate of suicide bomb attacks in Shiite areas of the country. The silence emanating from Hezbollah in recent days combined with the demands of its followers suggest that the party could be close to launching an offensive action alongside its current defensive measures in areas under its influence.
“Our patience is running out and we are demanding Hezbollah do something. We cannot continue to live like this,” said one resident of a suburb south of Beirut and a supporter of Hezbollah.
That sentiment is now commonly heard in Beirut’s southern suburbs. The streets have emptied and businesses are suffering with outsiders afraid to visit the area to take advantage of cheaper prices. Residents are looking to sell their properties and move out or rent elsewhere in Beirut. Yet more steel anti-parking poles are appearing along with additional CCTV cameras. Hezbollah snipers reportedly have taken to the rooftops and more explosive detection kits have been disbursed to the party’s cadres. Lately, Hezbollah has surrounded the Rassoul al-Azzam Hospital on the old airport road with a dense ring of concrete and steel. Hezbollah fighters wounded in Syria are treated at the hospital which could make it a tempting target for extremist militant groups.
The security services have had some success in arresting militants and have been particularly aggressive in pursuing suspects in areas like the Western Bekaa Valley, which has a long association with the jihadist phenomenon.
Most of the bomb attacks have been amateurish and poorly planned with relatively small explosive charges, but the fact that the bombers continue to strike underlines the limits of defensive measures as well as the sizable pool of volunteers willing to immolate themselves.
Hezbollah can act with speed and ruthlessness when it feels that its interests are under threat. That was demonstrated in bold fashion in May 2008 when Hezbollah stormed west Beirut in response to the then-March 14-dominated government’s attempt to shut down the party’s private telecommunications network. The intent behind the unprecedented act was to cow the government into reversing its decision, a goal that ultimately was achieved.
But the adversary Hezbollah faces in Lebanon today is more nebulous and requires a different approach. Whatever action Hezbollah chooses to undertake would have to be tailored so as not to further inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions in Lebanon, a development the party has sought to avoid despite its intervention in the Syrian war aggravating the sectarian climate.
A possible hint of what may come occurred on Oct. 11 with the death of Omar Ibrahim Atrash, the alleged mastermind of the car bombing in Ruwaiss in August which killed 27 people. There were various reports of what happened but it appeared that Atrash’s vehicle was halted by an obstacle placed on a track between Arsal and Ras Baalbek and then struck by an anti-tank missile, killing the militant and his companion.
The wilderness between Arsal and the border with Syria has been subjected to occasional Syrian helicopter attacks, but Atrash’s death bore the hallmarks of a carefully planned ambush and execution. Did Hezbollah acquire intelligence on Atrash’s movements and take a decision to eliminate the perpetrator of the Ruwaiss bombing?
Similarly, the twin car bombings of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli, coming eight days after the deadly Ruwaiss blast, initially raised speculation in some quarters that it may have been retaliation by Hezbollah.
Although the investigation pointed to an alternative set of culprits, more than a few Hezbollah supporters referred to the Tripoli bombings as a “two all” equation, meaning two bomb attacks against the Sunnis for the two bombings in Ruwaiss and Bir al-Abed in July.
The rocket barrage against Arsal on Jan. 17 in which seven people were killed, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up in Hermel, was regarded by the town’s Sunni residents as a revenge attack by Hezbollah. They insisted that the launch site for the rocket attack was to the west of Arsal somewhere between Zabboud and Hermel, Shiite-populated territory where Hezbollah has a presence.
Hezbollah denied it was responsible and the Army said that the rockets were fired from the east where the border with Syria lies.
A claim of responsibility was made on social media by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – the extremist group that was disavowed this week by Al-Qaeda – which said it had targeted the “FSA headquarters” in Arsal.
The rockets used were 122mm Grads fitted with anti-personnel warheads containing hundreds of steel ball bearings. Hezbollah is known to possess such rockets and fired some into Israel in the 2006 war. Then again, Hezbollah received the Grads from Syria which makes it possible that ISIS has acquired some of the rockets in its raids against Syrian army munitions depots.
Since the Shoueifat suicide bomb attack, there have been reports that Hezbollah is preparing to launch an attack against the Syrian town of Yabroud in the Qalamoun area, the alleged source of some of the car bomb attacks in Lebanon.
According to a security source, the explosive used in the Ruwaiss car bombing was Poladyn, part of a stockpile held in Yabroud. Poladyn, which comes in red sticks, is commonly used in stone quarrying, which is widely practiced in the mountainous Qalamoun area. The vehicle apprehended by the Army in the northern Bekaa Valley on Nov. 22 also contained Poladyn, reportedly some 350 kilograms of the explosive, along with two mortar shells.
However, the bombs that have struck Shiite areas this year were smaller than the Bir al-Abed and Ruwaiss attacks last summer and reportedly were constructed mainly from jerry-rigged mortar rounds and rockets rather than a more powerful explosive charge like Poladyn. That may suggest that Yabroud has dried up as a source of car bombs destined for Lebanon, particularly in light of the Syrian army’s offensive against the Qalamoun area since mid-November in which the town has been heavily shelled.
Alternatively, it may simply have become too difficult to smuggle bomb-laden vehicles along the army-controlled and Hezbollah-monitored routes that link Arsal to the Bekaa Valley, forcing the perpetrators of the recent attacks to manufacture less powerful devices from whatever available material can be found in Lebanon.