Two bombings in three days have rattled both Syria and Lebanon. And as with most events in the Middle East—especially those that occur in neighboring countries—nothing happens by coincidence.
The first took place in Damascus on Sept. 26, killing 17, all civilians. According to Syria’s state run news agency SANA, the attack was the result of a suicide car bomber. This past Monday, a second car bomb, this time detonated via remote-control, targeted a bus filled with Lebanese soldiers in the northern city of Tripoli, killing seven and injuring 33.
Although no group claimed responsibility for either incident, the perpetrators are well aware that the location of the two blasts and their intended victims are all that are needed to identify them.
The Damascus bombing occurred at the junction of a road leading from the airport to the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, an important pilgrimage site for Shia Muslims. Shias from all over the world visit the shrine, but most frequently those from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Interestingly, the site of the blast was also near a Syrian intelligence building. More intriguing, a statement denouncing the bombing was conspicuously absent from Saudi Arabia, unlike most other Arab countries. Even the United States State Department saw fit to condemn it.
In Tripoli, those responsible obviously had the Lebanese Army in their sights. Indeed, Tripoli has been a hotbed of Sunni Muslim extremism in Lebanon, especially since the siege of Nahr al-Bared over a year ago. At that time, a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam took over the Palestinian refugee camp just outside Tripoli, and a three-month long battle with the Lebanese Army ensued. The Salafi militants, following the same fundamentalist form of Islam as al-Qaeda, were ultimately defeated but not before inflicting heavy casualties on the Army.
More recently, fighting in the city erupted between Sunni Muslims supportive of Rafiq Hariri’s Future Movement and Alawites allied with Hezbollah. The longstanding dispute finally ended after the “Tripoli Document” was signed in September by Hariri and Ali Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party and leader of the Alawite community. Again, it was the Lebanese Army that needed intervene to end the sectarian conflict.
Ironically, it was Rafiq Hariri himself, as detailed by The New Yorker’s investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who first rolled out the welcome mat in Lebanon for extremist groups such as Fatah al-Islam as a way of curtailing Hezbollah’s influence in the country (before the agreement backfired). These fact make the U.S.-backed Hariri—a dual Lebanese, Saudi citizen—appear even more hypocritical and ridiculous when he blamed the Syrian government for the Tripoli attack, especially since Damascus was the victim itself only days earlier, likely at the hands of the same type of militants.
But why two attacks, in two different countries, against two different targets?
It was the pan-Arab daily, Al-Hayat, which broke the news that will shed some light on this question:
“Al-Qaeda representatives are in Lebanon at present and they are trying to establish contact with [certain] groups based in Ain al-Hilwah.”
Ain al-Hilwah, located on the eastern outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon, is home to anywhere between 45,000-70,000 Palestinian refugees. The uncertainty in population is reflective of it being the largest and most autonomous of all the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Ain al-Hilwa is also completely off-limits to the country’s armed forces and security is the responsibility of the factions within it.
According to the Jordanian security official quoted in the story, Saudi, Yemeni, Jordanian and European nationals departing Iraq have infiltrated Ain al-Hilwah—no doubt under cover of its internal disputes—in order to enlist disgruntled Palestinians to their cause. Local militant groups already present there and considered sympathetic to al-Qaeda include Jund al-Sham, the Ansar League, and Fatah al-Islam.
The hallmark of al-Qaeda is sowing sectarian strife. And there is no better recruitment ground to help in this endeavor than the teeming Palestinian refugee camps such as Nahr al-Bared and especially Ain al-Hilwah. The latter is completely isolated from the rest of the country and its disenfranchised, disaffected Sunni Muslim inhabitants make them an ideal constituency.
Hezbollah though, is keenly aware of these circumstances and overtures and has proactively attempted to counter them. As so well reported by Dr. Franklin Lamb, they have done this through humanitarian outreach, by providing municipal assistance in the form of sewer and water projects, and successfully lobbying the government to issue Palestinians temporary identification cards, all not insignificant measures.
Rallying the Troops
It was al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a videotaped message released in early September, who lambasted Hezbollah for allowing “thousands of crusaders”—otherwise known as United Nations peacekeepers—into the south after the July 2006 war with Israel. He additionally assailed nearly all Shia political and religious figures in the region.
Quite remarkably, a “memorandum of understanding” had been signed earlier in August between (Shia) Hezbollah and the Salafi Belief and Justice Movement. For this to occur between two groups at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum was stunning (Salafis consider Shia Muslims as heretics at best and non-Muslims at worst). But because of the outrage and intense pressure levied against it by other Salafi movements, the agreement was frozen only a few days later.
Although al-Qaeda and their allies are far from posing a direct military threat to Hezbollah, this was never their modus operandi. Rather, they will attempt to achieve their objectives by creating conditions giving pretext to the Israelis to strike Lebanon, launching attacks on UNIFIL forces, or assassinating high-profile figures in the country so as to foment political instability.
The Damascus and Tripoli bombings are thus meant to convey one simple message:
We have arrived.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri <at> yahoo.com.