Internecine suspicions mount in wake of Beirut bomb
Gulfs between Shias, Sunnis and refugees are widening over the Syrian crisis
A woman walks over shattered glass, past damaged cars near the site of an explosion last week in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Photograph: Khalil Hassan/Reuters
The southern Beirut parking lot where a car bomb exploded last week, sending shockwaves through this Hizbullah stronghold, is still a mass of mangled metal, shattered glass and burnt-out vehicles. The blast in the densely built Bir al-Abed district, which contains many of Hizbullah’s offices, did not cause any fatalities but it did revive memories of darker days during Lebanon’s civil war when a car bomb in the same area in 1985 killed dozens.
“It was like an earthquake,” says Abu Hussein, a local shopkeeper who witnessed both that attack and last week’s explosion. “But we are strong, we can survive hundreds of such attacks.”
An obscure Syrian rebel battalion named Brigade 313 Special Missions claimed responsibility for the bombing. It said it had carried out two smaller blasts targeting Hizbullah in other parts of Lebanon and vowed to continue such attacks until Hizbullah ends its military support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. As the fresh “martyr” posters on the streets of Bir al-Abed attest, many Hizbullah men are fighting – and dying – across the border.
Several locals echoed what one elected Hizbullah representative had claimed: that the attack was the work of “Israel and its agents”. Posters and banners at the scene of the bombing denounced the US.
Hizbullah has long sought to portray the Syrian uprising as an Israeli and Washington-supported conspiracy to rupture its alliance with the Assad regime.
For some, their worst fears had been realised.
“We can’t deny it anymore, the war in Syria has come to Lebanon,” said Fadi, a Bir al-Abed resident. “The government keeps saying Lebanon will stand aside from it but the reality is the war is here now.”
For much of the past two years, Lebanon has felt the tremors from the conflict in Syria in the shape of sporadic clashes between its own Sunnis and Shias or between Lebanese army forces and Sunni hardliners in the northern city of Tripoli, in Sidon to the south and in the borderlands of eastern Lebanon. But in recent months, the fallout from Syria has taken a more serious turn, with the number of incidents within Lebanon rising in tandem with Hizbullah’s increasing role in buttressing Assad.
The country feels increasingly jittery and tense. There are fears – largely unspoken so as not to further strain Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance – that Lebanese Sunnis supportive of Syria’s rebels or elements within the 600,000 Syrian refugees that have flocked here may be involved in the upsurge of attacks.
This week the news that a prominent supporter of the Assad regime, Baath Party official Mohammed Dirar Jammo, had been shot and killed in a southern Lebanon town broke less than 24 hours after a Hizbullah convoy, reportedly travelling to Damascus, was targeted in a roadside bombing in the Bekaa Valley. Despite earlier assumptions that Jammo’s killing was politically motivated, Lebanese officials have insisted it was related to a family dispute. An al-Qaeda offshoot claimed responsibility for the convoy attack and warned it would turn the Bekaa into a “river of blood” if Hizbullah did not withdraw from Syria.
Lebanese politicians have sought to keep a lid on growing tensions.
‘Boiling political atmosphere’
“What is happening in terms of assassinations, bombing attacks and car bombs are the result of this boiling political atmosphere,” interior minister Marwan Charbel said.
Last week Charbel, whom some Shia accuse of sympathising with a radical Sunni preacher in Sidon, was pelted with stones when he visited the site of the Bir al-Abed bombing.
Charbel said he believed the purpose of the blast was to “provoke sectarian clashes” in Lebanon. He added: “Neither the Sunnis nor the Shias will fall for this.”