Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Trouble ahead for Lebanon after double Tripoli attack

On Saturday night two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at a cafe in the predominately Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. The blasts killed nine people and injured 36.

The double attack raised fears in Lebanon of a wave of bombings. It is unclear for whom the two men were operating. While the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front claimed responsibility, Nouhad Al Mashnouq, Lebanon’s interior minister, said ISIL was behind the bombings.

On Monday, Lebanese security forces staged an operation to remove Islamist prisoners from a bloc that they controlled at Lebanon’s Roumieh prison and transfer them to a more secure location where they could be better isolated. The prisoners had access to mobile phones and computers, and officials are saying the Jabal Mohsen attacks were organised from Roumieh.

The suicide bombings coincided with reports from Syria’s Qalamoun district, which abuts Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, that ISIL has been gaining ground on the Al Nusra Front there. Whereas the Al Nusra Front appears to be focused on fighting the regime of Bashar Al Assad, ISIL is viewed as a group that seeks to expand its sway throughout the Middle East, therefore whose primary aim is to destabilise societies to bring this about.

While the speculation in Lebanon about a new wave of attacks is not based on any specific information, the concern is not unfounded. As ISIL and the Al Nusra Front gear up for a battle for control over Qalamoun, or alternatively decide on a modus vivendi there, Lebanon will certainly feel the repercussions.

In the battle for influence, terrorist actions can often be the best way to attract support. And if the two groups were to unify their efforts, the chances are, again, that they would seek to manipulate Lebanon’s sectarian contradictions to build a following.

Two things are complicating matters for Lebanon’s government. Both the Al Nusra Front and ISIL have held around three-dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen for several months. They were captured during the battle for Arsal last August, and negotiations for their release have floundered until now.

A second problem is that the Syrian regime has reportedly been allowing ISIL combatants to cross over from the province of Raqqa into the Qalamoun district. It hopes this will lead to a destructive confrontation between them and the Al Nusra Front, ultimately playing to its advantage and that of Hizbollah.

But there is also a more cynical, and worrisome, interpretation. For months the Assad regime and Hizbollah have been seeking to push the Lebanese army into coordinating its actions in the border area with them. The Lebanese have resisted, realising this would be divisive domestically, as many people, especially Sunnis, are hostile to the Syrian leadership and Hizbollah.

By allowing ISIL members to enter Qalamoun, the Syrians could be putting the Lebanese government in an impossible situation: if it still refuses to coordinate with Syria and Hizbollah, the terrorist threat could expand. If it does agree to coordinate, discontent and sectarian tensions may rise at home.

Given the events in Paris last week, Mr Al Assad must feel renewed confidence. With the West preoccupied with the jihadist threat, the Syrian regime can once again portray itself as an enemy of extremism. As Mr Al Assad has repeatedly implied: “If I’m removed from power, the jihadists will win.”

This message has made headway in gullible western capitals. A few months ago Barack Obama wrote to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to underline that the United States and Iran shared an interest in fighting ISIL. Mr Obama also reassured Mr Khamenei that the Syrian regime’s forces would not be targeted by coalition air strikes.

Given the Syrian regime’s skill at building up the terrorist threat to create conditions that allow it to survive politically, the Lebanese are right to be anxious. Nor has the international community been shaken by evidence that the Assad regime allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place, and for a long time avoided military action against the group.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Syria was depicted as a gathering point for Europe’s most violent extremists. Hayat Boumeddienne, the suspected accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly, allegedly fled there this month. All this buys Mr Al Assad leverage, making it less probable today that western countries will insist that the Syrian president leave office.

The terrorism phobia in Lebanon has also been artificially heightened by Hizbollah, to reduce opposition to the militia’s involvement in Syria’s war. It may, similarly, serve to propel the army into a full-fledged confrontation with jihadist groups along the Lebanese border, with majority public support.

It is alarming that ISIL, the Assad regime and Hizbollah all have agendas that will exacerbate sectarian tensions in Lebanon. ISIL feels it only gains from sectarian polarisation. The Assad regime and Hizbollah want the Lebanese army to crush Lebanese Sunni networks assisting armed groups in Qalamoun, regardless of whether this damages Sunni confidence in the army.

That is why the Jabal Mohsen bombings were so disquieting. Caught in the middle is Lebanon’s government, which is trying to contain a situation that can easily slip out of control. But with Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah now riding the global antiterrorism wave, both see an opening to finally make real gains in Syria.

No comments: