BEIRUT: The suicide bomb attack that targeted a police checkpoint in east Lebanon, coupled with the arrest of 17 terror suspects allegedly tied to a plot to assassinate Speaker Nabih Berri, signals that Lebanon is poised for a new wave of bombings linked to the turmoil in Iraq and Syria, analysts said Friday.
However, despite serious threats to its security and stability posed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups already active in Syria and Iraq, Lebanon does not face an immediate risk of becoming another Iraq, ravaged by sectarian violence, they said.
The major military gains made by militants from the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq earlier this month have sent shockwaves across the political landscape in Lebanon, which is already reeling under a bloody spillover of the civil war in Syria into its territory.
Lebanese leaders have since scrambled to ward off any adverse repercussions of the dramatic developments in Iraq on the security situation in Lebanon. The Lebanese Army has stepped up its patrols near the border with Syria to prevent gunmen and terror suspects from infiltrating into Lebanese territory.
“Today’s attack in Dahr al-Baidar is a message from ISIS that the battle is not limited only to Iraq, but it will also stretch to Syria and Lebanon,” Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Université St. Joseph, told The Daily Star.
He said the thrust of the ISIS battle is in the “Levant arena” which, in the militant group’s ideology includes Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.
“Following ISIS’ recent military gains in Iraq, Lebanon is facing the threat of Iraqization if real measures are not taken to shield the country from a spillover of the war in Iraq,” Nader said.
Among these measures, he said, is “inclusive domestic politics with the participation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, filling the presidential vacuum with the election of a new president and forming a new government to face tough political, economic and security challenges.”
Nader added that the suicide attack in Dahr al-Baidar on the Beirut-Damascus highway in east Lebanon that killed a police officer and wounded 32 people, was also in response to Hezbollah’s declaration that the party, which is already aiding Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, was ready to send fighters to Syria and Iraq to defend Shiite holy sites in those countries.
General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim said he narrowly escaped the attack in Dahr al-Baidar after the blast went off just 200 meters away from his convoy.
Analyst Qassem Kassir said the Dahr al-Baidar attack signaled to the possibility of a new spate of bombings in Lebanon, but at a lower rate than before due to the Lebanese Army’s “preventive measures,” including the arrest of a number of terror suspects the monitoring of alleged terrorist groups.
“The attack indicated that ISIS has decided to open the Lebanon front basking on the glory of its military advances in Iraq,” Kassir, an expert on Islamic fundamentalist movements, told The Daily Star.
“ Lebanon has always been targeted by militant, takfiri and jihadist groups. These groups, which went underground following the Lebanese Army’s successful campaign to crack down on terror organizations, might move now to carry out terror attacks emboldened by ISIS’ gains in Iraq,” Kassir said.
ISIS and other Al-Qaeda-linked groups have claimed responsibility for the deadly car bombings and suicide attacks that earlier this year targeted areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley region where Hezbollah enjoys wide support in response to the party’s military intervention in Syria.
Kassir ruled out the possibility of Lebanon becoming another Iraq or Syria, which have been engulfed in sectarian violence for years.
“The situation in Lebanon is better than that in Syria and Iraq. In addition to an internal Lebanese political consensus on maintaining stability, the security agencies have been effective in preventing new bomb attacks,” he said.
He added that cooperation between Lebanese and foreign security agencies had helped in the arrest of a number of people linked to terrorist organizations.
“Furthermore, there is a regional and international agreement to prevent Lebanon’s destabilization,” Kassir said. “Regional and international powers still support preserving stability in Lebanon.”
Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said he expected new bombings in Lebanon as a result of the spillover of the turmoil in Syria and Iraq.
But he ruled out the possibility of Lebanon becoming another Iraq.
“ Lebanon has always been vulnerable. Therefore, the sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq is expected to have a spillover in Lebanon,” Khashan told The Daily Star.
“Of course, Lebanon is set for a new wave of bombings. But this does not mean that Lebanon is becoming another Iraq.”
“There is an international and regional accord on sparing Lebanon the vagaries of regional turmoil,” Khashan said.
He added that Lebanon would not become another Iraq “because terrorists do not have a base of operation in Lebanon.”
“There is no community in Lebanon that hosts terrorists. They have no place to hide except in a hotel room,” Khashan said, adding: “The Lebanese Sunnis do not host them. Sunnis in Lebanon are not radical and they don’t host radical groups.”
Khashan said the Dahr al-Baidar bombing and the arrest of 17 terror suspects during a police raid on a hotel in Hamra were two separate incidents. He said the bombing was in response to the Lebanese Army’s military campaign against Syrian rebels in northern Bekaa. “It’s premature to assess what happened in Hamra,” he said.
Nader, the USJ professor, said Friday’s bombing indicated that the Lebanese border was not fully secured despite the Army measures.
“The Lebanese Army’s security measures on the border with Syria are not enough to deter ISIS and other terrorist attacks,” he said. “What is required is inclusive domestic politics that means to get moderate Sunni politicians, mainly Saad Hariri, on board.”
Nader said that at the root of internal problems in both Lebanon and Iraq is the exclusion of moderate Sunni politicians. “This exclusion in Iraq and Lebanon has subsequently led to the emergence of the ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.”