BEIRUT: Tight control of the tense Lebanese-Syrian borders to prevent the flow of militant jihadist groups into Lebanon and an internal political agreement are essential to shield the country from the devastating repercussions of the 3-year-old war in Syria, officials said.
Officials warn that Lebanon faces the threat of being transformed into an arena for jihad by Al-Qaeda-linked organizations should the war in Syria drag on for long, while terror experts say the country is slowly sliding into Iraq-style sectarian violence as a result of the spillover of the bloody conflict next door into Lebanese territory.
“In order to protect Lebanon from the adverse effects of the war in Syria, the border between the two countries should be tightly controlled and the rival Lebanese parties should be brought together at the Dialogue table to reach an internal political accord,” caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told The Daily Star.
He said some sort of an internal accord was sufficient to defuse mounting political and sectarian tensions fueled by the conflict in Syria “because regional and international powers are in agreement on the need to protect stability in Lebanon.”
An alarming escalation in deadly car bombings and suicide attacks in the past few weeks targeting areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah enjoys wide support, has raised fears that Lebanon was rapidly being used as an arena for jihad by Al-Qaeda-linked groups to punish the party over its military intervention in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
“If the crisis in Syria persists for long, Lebanon will face the danger of being transformed into an arena for jihad by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups,” Charbel told The Daily Star.
Charbel said he expected the wave of car bombings and suicide attacks that jolted Shiite areas south of Beirut and in eastern Lebanon to continue in the absence of a political solution to end the fighting in Syria between government troops and opposition and jihadist groups seeking to topple the Assad regime.
“ Lebanon will not enjoy security and stability while Syria remains in turmoil. Violence in Syria leads to the outbreak of violence in Lebanon because the Lebanese are sharply divided over the conflict in Syria,” Charbel added.
Qassem Qassir, an expert in Islamic movements, said militant groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are waging an “open war” in Lebanon.
“It is no longer a question if Lebanon has been transformed into an arena for jihad. Rather, the question is: Until when will Lebanon remain a battlefield for Al-Qaeda-linked groups?” Qassir told The Daily Star.
He voiced fears that militant Islamic groups seeking to avenge Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syria war would use appalling tactics to strike the party’s strongholds, such as sending female suicide bombers or launching commando suicide attacks in the southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley.
As Hezbollah became heavily involved in the Syrian war, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have threatened to strike deep into Shiite areas where the party enjoys wide support in an attempt to force it to withdraw its fighters from Syria.
Nearly 50 people have been killed and hundreds others wounded in a spate of car bombings and suicide attacks that rocked the southern suburbs and the eastern town of Hermel since last summer. The attacks were claimed by the Nusra Front in Lebanon, an offshoot of Syria’s Nusra Front that is blacklisted by the U.S. as a terrorist group, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
This is in addition to twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Nov. 19, killing 30 people and wounding over 150. The attacks were claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Al-Qaeda-linked group.
The attacks ushered in a new phase of destabilization in Lebanon as a result of Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria.
In an ominous development that heightened security fears of residents in the southern suburbs, the ISIS, the Nusra Front in Lebanon, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades last month vowed to continue their attacks against Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon in retaliation for their involvement in the war in Syria.
Sunni-Shiite tensions in the Middle East, reflected in Syria and Iraq, are encouraging militant Salafist groups to thrive in Lebanon. The majority of Sunnis in Lebanon back the Syrian uprising, while Hezbollah and its March 8 allies support the Assad regime.
Analysts see that the hardening of sectarian sentiments encourages Salafist militancy to establish a presence in Lebanon.
Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Université St. Joseph, said Lebanon was drifting into Iraq-style sectarian violence and also becoming the primary battlefield for the ongoing military conflict in the region.
“ Lebanon is becoming the first and primary scene of military confrontation between Islamist groups and Hezbollah,” Nader told The Daily Star.
He said the car bombings and suicide attacks that swept Lebanon recently had shown that Hezbollah was targeted where it hurt most: in Shiite residential areas in the southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley.
Nader said Lebanon has become a victim of “a war of terror” waged by Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and Iraq.
“The Syrian war is not a classical war. It has become a war of terror. This war is waged in three Levant countries: Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,” he said.
“The war of terror in Syria has spread terror to other countries. Therefore, Lebanon could be transformed into the first arena for a military conflict, given Hezbollah’s weakest point, the Shiite residential areas which have become the target of Islamist groups,” Nader added.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general and an expert on terrorism, said Lebanon had been declared an arena for jihad by the Nusra Front and the ISIS six months ago following the first car bombing that struck the Bir al-Abed neighborhood in the southern suburbs last July.
“ Lebanon has already been turned into an arena for jihad by Al-Qaeda-linked groups, but it has not yet become another Iraq,” Jaber told The Daily Star, referring to the Arab country torn by a prolonged sectarian war.
Jaber, director of the Beirut-based think tank, the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, said that takfiri groups such as the ISIS and the Nusra Front that are carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraq are seeking to turn Lebanon into another Iraq.
Noting that the 11 terrorist attacks that struck Lebanon in the past six months happen in one day in Iraq, he said: “Although Lebanon has not yet become another Iraq, it is slowly drifting toward Iraq-style sectarian violence.”
Jaber predicted a continuation of car bomb attacks against Hezbollah’s areas in the southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley, but stressed that these attacks would not lead the party to withdraw its fighters from Syria.
“These [Al-Qaeda-linked] groups know that their attacks will not make Hezbollah withdraw from Syria because the party’s decision to go to Syria was a strategic one. This strategic decision will not be annulled by tactical means,” he said.
“Maybe the presence of Hezbollah in Syria is a reason but it is not the reason for the car bombs and suicide attacks that struck Hezbollah’s areas,” Jaber said. “The objective is to incite a sectarian war among the Lebanese.”
Nizar Abdel-Qader, a retired Lebanese Army general, said he was more worried about the outbreak of sectarian strife in Lebanon than about the country being used by Al-Qaeda-linked groups as a battlefield for jihad.
“So far, Lebanon has not been used as an arena for jihad by the ISIS, Nusra Front and other Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations,” Abdel-Qader told The Daily Star. “In order for Lebanon to be transformed into an arena for jihad, permanent cells for Al-Qaeda should be established along with logistical preparations for attacks. But this does not exist yet.”
“Furthermore, the general environment is not favorable for the work of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Even the Lebanese Salafist organizations in Tripoli, the Bekaa Valley and Beirut do not support Al-Qaeda’s ideology,” he added.
Abdel-Qader warned that if the spiraling political tensions between the March 8 and March 14 parties, stoked mainly by sharp differences over the conflict in Syria, are left unchecked, “this could serve as a spark for internal strife.”