Car bombs have always been the preferred method of political assassination in Lebanon. The most recent was the October 2012 killing of intelligence chief Wisam al-Hasan, a harsh reminder that covert funding of Syria’s militant groups by government officials would not go unchecked.
In less than two months, four car bombs struck Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. The devastation wrought was different from those in years past however, for no specific leader was targeted. The victims were not only ordinary civilians, but the chief constituents of Lebanon’s two main rival political factions, the March 8 and March 14 coalitions.
On July 8, a car bomb hit the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of Beirut’s southern suburbs, collectively known as the Dahiyeh, which is largely (though no exclusively) inhabited by Shia Muslims. More than 50 were wounded but no deaths recorded. Then, on August 15, a massive car bomb detonated in the Dahiyeh’s al-Ruweiss district, killing nearly 30 and injuring 300.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah placed the blame squarely on takfiris; extremists who exclude anyone not adhering to their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam as outside its fold. They are now the best-equipped and most numerous of the armed opposition batting Bashar al-Assad‘s regime in Syria.
Only a week passed after the Ruweiss attack before two car bombs ripped through the al-Taqwa and al-Salaam mosques during Friday prayers in the Sunni-majority city of Tripoli, one in which the firebrand, anti-Assad, Salafist cleric Salem al-Rafei had been preaching. At last count, 47 were killed and 500 injured. Again, all were civilians.
The Bir al-Abed blast was allegedly in retaliation for Hezbollah’s “meddling” in Syria, specifically in the town of Qusair, from where rebels had increasingly been harassing and making forays into nearby Shia villages on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border before Hezbollah fighters helped wrest it from their control.
In condemning this bombing, March 14 officials implicitly held Hezbollah responsible due to their involvement in Qusair. This so-called pro-Western coalition however, had been funding and arming al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist rebels in Syria via Sidon and Tripoli long before a single Hezbollah fighter had ever set foot there.
The August carnage in Ruweiss led Nasrallah to say that if necessary, he would go to Syria himself to fight the takfiris. The devastation in Tripoli soon followed. Was it in retaliation for the Dahiyeh bombings? Two pro-Assad Sunni clerics were quickly detained, but the real architects remain unknown.
The conventional wisdom has been that these events are merely “spillover” from the Syrian conflict. It is a convenient yet superficial analysis.
Assad’s forces now appear to have the upper hand as the Syrian people continue to suffer inside and outside their ravaged country. Trying to cut their losses (and recognizing that the United States and other Western powers are loathe to arm an opposition where al-Qaeda’s flag competes with that of the Free Syrian Army), the “spillover” effect has really been for takfiris to revive the sectarian war in Iraq—in which 1,000 civilians were killed from car bombings and suicide attacks in July alone—and to kindle one in Lebanon.
Sectarian tensions are at an all-time high in Lebanon, and its radical foot soldiers, like al-Rafei and Sidon’s fugitive Salafist cleric Ahmad al-Asir, have done their utmost to stoke these sentiments. Members of the March 14 coalition have been complicit at best, or are active participants at worst, in fueling this engulfing fire.
Behind the scenes are the machinations of the Saudi, Israeli, and American intelligence services. Recognizing the gains that can be made by creating an unstable, volatile political climate, entire communities are now in the crosshairs, sowing the seeds of hate between them.
After the first Dahiyeh bombing, sweets were handed out in celebration in the restive Sunni neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli and Tariq al-Jedidah in West Beirut.
Lebanon has entered a new era. And the worst may be yet to come.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.