Lebanese authorities have arrested two suspects affiliated with a pro-Syrian regime group in the bombing of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli on Friday. Forty-seven people were killed in the attack in the northern Lebanese city, likely retaliation for a bombing the previous week in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, that killed another 27.
In other words, the sectarian civil war that has divided Syria for the last two and a half years is reverberating in Lebanon as well, with Lebanese allies and adversaries of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad at each other’s throats.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, essentially predicted Friday’s bombings in his weekly column for NOW Lebanon. Analyzing the statements of Hezbollah officials and allies, Badran argued a day before the bombings that Hezbollah had effectively “announced a retaliatory campaign against Sunni targets.” Friday’s operation was almost surely part of Hezbollah’s campaign—and so it seems was last week’s rocket attack on Israel.
Last Thursday four missiles were fired from Lebanon into northern Israel, with one intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system and the rest falling into open areas. In information circulated by The Israel Project in its afternoon Daily TIP newsletter, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman attributed the attacks to a “Global Jihad” organization, a vague term of art that typically refers to Sunni extremist organizations, including Al Qaeda affiliates. Later, major U.S. press outlets reported that the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, a Salafist group with ties to Al Qaeda, had taken responsibility for the attack. In reality, that assessment was based on the tweet of a sheikh whose affiliation with the outfit is unclear.
The IDF clarified matters somewhat when it scrambled several jets early Friday morning for a “pin-point” strike inside Lebanon—as it turned out, the target was not a “Global Jihad” group but rather a Syrian regime proxy, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, that frequently works together with Hezbollah. In other words, Israel’s action suggests that it believes that the rocket attack on Israel was a Hezbollah operation. But because the attack from Lebanon was of limited scope and apparently had little to do with Israel, Jerusalem’s response was relatively mild, consisting, according to the Lebanese press, of one air-to-surface missile. Hopefully that was enough to signal to its northern neighbor’s warring sects and other factions—and perhaps Hezbollah, most of all—that Israel wishes not to be dragged into the middle of an intra-Lebanese issue.
To understand what happened last week on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border, it’s perhaps useful to stand back for a moment in order to see it in a broader regional context.
Lebanon’s two main Muslim sects have chosen opposing sides in Syria’s ongoing civil war. The Shia back the Assad regime and Sunnis support the Sunni-majority Syrian rebels. While Sunnis have smuggled arms to their comrades in Syria and many have joined in the fighting there, it is Hezbollah fighting alongside Assad that has so far had the largest impact. Along with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force units and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, Tehran’s Lebanese asset Hezbollah has spelled depleted Assad regime forces that over the last two and a half years of civil war have suffered perhaps thousands of casualties and maybe more defections. Most recently, Hezbollah proved instrumental in changing the balance of power in the Syrian town of Qusayr, a strategically significant node for both the regime and the rebels, and vanquishing Assad’s adversaries.
However, the battle for Qusayr also showed Hezbollah’s limitations. The Party of God absorbed a large number of casualties there, especially early in the battle, which alarmed its domestic Shiite constituency—why, many wanted to know, was the Islamic resistance fighting in Syria if its main purpose was to defend Lebanon and the Shia from Israel? Moreover, Qusayr also raised questions about the group’s fighting strength. Despite the wild exaggerations of both Hezbollah supporters and their adversaries, as Tony Badran recently wrote, the group probably has about 5000 fighters. Even if Hezbollah is only deploying several hundred troops across the border in Syria, that still leaves it more vulnerable than otherwise on its most important front—not the Israeli border, but Lebanon itself.
With its commitments in Syria, Hezbollah needs help keeping the domestic situation under control, especially with the Sunni community now enraged by Assad, Iran and Hezbollah’s depredations against their Sunni brethren in Syria. Consequently, Hezbollah has tapped the Lebanese Armed Forces for assistance. While the United States continues to fund this state institution, presumably under the misguided belief that it’s the only card Washington has left to play in Beirut, the reality is that Hezbollah long ago infiltrated the LAF, particularly its directorate of intelligence, which is effectively under Hezbollah’s control.
For instance, consider the June confrontation between the LAF and a Sunni group in the southern city of Sidon, in which the Lebanese army was ostensibly responding to an attack on its soldiers. That version of the story, as Badran explained at the time, was incomplete. “There was a third protagonist,” wrote Badran—Hezbollah. “In fact, the operation in Sidon was a preemptive power play by the Party of God. Using the LAF as cover, Hezbollah moved to eliminate what it considered a potential threat.”
Fast forward to last week’s bombing in the southern suburbs of Beirut, credited to a Sunni group with ties to the Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah’s warnings of retaliation. Friday’s mosque bombings were likely a part of that retaliatory campaign, and it seems that the flurry of rockets aimed at Israel was as well.
The rockets were fired from an area dominated by Hezbollah and its ally Amal, near Tyre in southern Lebanon where security procedures have been further enhanced since the bombings in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold. The notion that a gang of Sunni fighters could sneak in four rockets and fire them off without being noticed is improbable.
Nonetheless, Lebanese officials, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, explained that it wasn’t Hezbollah. "It must be these Salafi groups,” said one unnamed security source, “because we have no control over them." The IDF released a statement saying that, “The Lebanese Government is responsible for the rockets fired earlier at Israel by Global Jihad terrorists.” Presumably, this is precisely what Hezbollah and its allies wanted to hear because further corroboration, from even hostile sources, would help clear the way for the Lebanese Armed Forces to take action against Sunni “terrorists” on behalf of the Party of God, just as it had done in Sidon two months ago.
Of course, Hezbollah doesn’t usually seek, or get, Jerusalem’s help. And the fact that Israel wound up striking the headquarters of PFLP-GC, a Syrian proxy that Hezbollah frequently taps for rocket attacks, suggests that it quickly saw through the ruse and made the reality plain. In foregoing Hezbollah targets and zeroing in on Hezbollah allies instead, Israel quietly explained that it knows what the party is up to and while it wishes not to escalate at this point, Hezbollah had better take the warning seriously.
What the White House believes, however, is an entirely different question.
As I wrote recently, because the Obama administration does not have a serious strategy to deal with Iran, and because it has mistaken drone strikes on Sunni militants for a Middle East policy, the CIA has drafted its own priorities. According to the CIA’s former deputy director, the agency believes that the greatest threat to U.S. national security comes from Al Qaeda, with Iran a secondary concern. This may explain why, as reported last month, America’s clandestine service might have tipped off Lebanese military intelligence, and therefore Hezbollah, about an impending bomb attack on a Hezbollah target. In any case, because of the administration’s failure to see Iran as the key strategic threat to American interests, the result is that the United States, knowingly or not, has now become a part of Hezbollah’s information campaign to make war on Lebanon’s Sunni community. So what if the LAF is acting hand in hand with Iran’s long arm in Lebanon? In the Obama administration’s bizarre worldview, the U.S.-funded and –trained Lebanese Armed Forces is serving American interests—by killing Sunnis.