Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hezbollah is caught in an Al-Qaeda vise

Lebanon has entered a new phase of instability as attacks against Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army have occurred in rapid succession in recent days. Understanding what is happening may help us better predict what to expect in the future.

The Army has been targeted in recent days at the Awali checkpoint and in Majdalyoun, around Sidon, while a car bomb blew up near a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley, before a rocket barrage was directed at Hermel Tuesday. Accounts have differed as to what precisely happened in the three bombings, but a source in the Sidon Consultative Gathering told the daily An-Nahar that nothing in the attacks against the Army suggested they were suicide operations.

Those behind the bombings targeting Hezbollah were probably not the same ones who attacked the Army, despite the media’s tendency to see them as part of the same package. Officials have suggested the Sidon attacks were carried out by followers of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Given their amateurishness, that may well be true.

But the car bomb in the Bekaa, near the village of Sbouba, was a different matter. The large quantity of explosives used and the fact that the blast occurred near a Hezbollah base, which must have been under observation for some time, indicated a level of professionalism similar to the one evident in the bombings at the Iranian Embassy in October. It also implied that those behind the attacks sought to hit high-value military sites of the party, not just provoke carnage among Shiite civilians.

If so, we can identify three categories of actions in recent months: small-scale attacks against the Army, indiscriminate bomb attacks against civilians, and more professionally prepared attacks against Hezbollah and Iranian objectives.

The first could possibly be a sign of greater militancy by Lebanese Sunni Salafist groups, in Sidon and probably Tripoli. They are angry at the Army’s assault against Assir’s mosque in Abra last June and feel that its repeated arrest of Salafists reflects an implicit alliance with Hezbollah and animus toward the Sunni community.

The attacks against civilians have been a straightforward terror weapon against (until now) Shiites, to show that there is a price to be paid for Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The third type of attack, against political and military targets, may point to an effort to shape the political and military environment in specific ways. The Sbouba attack could have been linked to the party’s ongoing campaign in the Qalamoun area of Syria; the blast at the Iranian Embassy was an obvious political message that the Iranians, despite the presence of Hezbollah, are vulnerable in Lebanon.

One thing is increasingly clear: Such operations are taking place in a wider context of Al-Qaeda’s reaffirming itself regionally, especially in a swathe of territory stretching from Iraq to Syria and now extending increasingly to Lebanon. This has been characterized by the effort of Al-Qaeda franchises to seize territory and systematically eliminate all those, including Sunnis, who might stand in their way.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which is active in Syria, is an extension of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, so their actions in Syria and Iraq must be viewed as part of a coordinated strategy. In Syria, ISIS and the Nusra Front have, from the start, been concerned less with fighting the regime of Bashar Assad than with carving out spaces in areas under the control of the Syrian rebels and the Kurdish community. This territory, particularly Syrian oil fields, has provided them with a steady source of income, therefore leverage over other rebel groups.

In an effort to consolidate an alternative Islamist alliance to Al-Qaeda, the Saudis formed the so-called Islamic Front in November, made up of seven Salafist rebel groups. Its ambition of creating an Islamic state in Syria worries Western states, which believe no transitional political project is feasible if it ignores the fears of Syria’s minorities. However, in a sign of the confusion permeating American and British policy on Syria, the Obama administration and the Cameron government have just suspended aid to Syrian groups they had been supporting, guaranteeing their further marginalization.

President Bashar Assad must be delighted. Reports this week indicate that the Syrian National Coalition has been told by Western governments that the Montreux conference in January should not lead to the removal of the Syrian president, for fear that jihadists would exploit the ensuing vacuum. The SNC had said that it would not attend the conference unless it led to a transition away from Assad, so what this will mean for its participation remains unclear.

Ultimately the political mess in Syria benefits both Assad and Al-Qaeda in the medium term. The paradox is that Hezbollah, the Assad regime and the United States are all, implicitly, on the same side – which is precisely the conclusion the Assad regime wanted everyone to reach when it allowed the jihadists to thrive.

The only problem is that Hezbollah now finds itself transformed into cannon fodder in a battle against Al-Qaeda, when its initial goal was merely to defend Assad rule. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has claimed that his party’s aim is to fight the “takfiris.” However, far more effective forces than his have failed to triumph over Al-Qaeda. The only success came when the United States collaborated with the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq to push the jihadists onto the defensive.

Hezbollah doesn’t have that capacity. The party has imported the Syrian war to Lebanon, even if it is not the only one to do so. Its hubris has been a curse to the country, and will remain so for some time.

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