Saying the recent attacks on Lebanon are ‘spillover’ from the Syrian conflict ignores the role of domestic Lebanese politics in the recent Beirut bombings
Two bombs have rocked Lebanon in the space of a week, killing twelve people and wounding dozens of others, including one in downtown Beirut that killed former finance minister Mohamad Chatah, a leading figure in the anti-Hezbollah March 14 alliance. A southern suburb of Beirut was also hit.
What the majority of Western media described as ‘spillover’ from Syria’s war was more the result of home-grown tactics. Lebanon has a long history of political assassinations, the most recent high-profile case being that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed when a van packed with explosives ripped through his motorcade in 2005. A UN-sponsored tribunal has charged five members of Hezbollah with the crime.
Shortly before his death, Chatah had been working on putting together a broad Lebanese coalition that included Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians. He reasoned that if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the moderate many said he was, and if he could reach a deal with the United States, then he could also positively influence events in Lebanon. Chatah’s reasoning was probably reinforced by the trip made by Lebanon Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to Tehran. Berri, a Shi’ite, had always been a close ally of Syria’s Assad dynasty. But since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Berri has stayed on the sidelines; the other Lebanese Shi’a party, Hezbollah, has flooded Syria with fighters in support of President Bashar Al-Assad.
In the past, Berri would call for a Saudi–Syrian brokered agreement when the Lebanese found themselves in a political bind. But now that Assad is otherwise engaged, Berri has said that a Saudi–Iranian rapprochement would be in Lebanon’s best interests. This would keep the country out of regional entanglement, thereby allowing space for politicians to form a cabinet, hold presidential elections due in the spring, and perhaps even elect a parliament to replace the current one that has extended its own mandate.
Chatah was already involved in engineering rapprochement between his own Sunni bloc and Lebanon’s biggest Christian bloc, led by lawmaker Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah in the rival March 8 alliance. So, building on Berri’s optimism, Chatah penned an open letter to Rouhani and was planning to solicit endorsements from members of the Lebanese parliament.
Reconciliatory in its tone, the main thrust of Chatah’s letter was to ask Rouhani to impress on Hezbollah the need to withdraw from Syria so as to extract Lebanon from the Syrian quagmire. Chatah also wrote that regional countries should help Lebanon remain neutral on Syria, and that Iran should help empower the Lebanese state to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah.
Perhaps Chatah’s plan hit a nerve, not only with Hezbollah, but also with its radical sponsors the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), especially given reports that Rouhani has been engaging in a low-intensity confrontation with them.
In the aftermath of Chatah’s assassination, his March 14 alliance implicitly and not-so-implicitly pointed fingers at Hezbollah. In turn, Hezbollah tried to deflect the accusations by reiterating the political analysis it usually presents in the aftermath of such bombings and asking why the attack happened when it did and who benefited from it. Its apologists concluded that either Israel or the radical Islamists who have infiltrated the country from Syria were the perpetrators. What Hezbollah failed to explain, however, was why Israel or the radical Islamists—both of which have Hezbollah as their chief enemy—would want to take out Hezbollah’s opponents.
Nonetheless, it is clear that many of the recent bomb attacks in Lebanon go well beyond domestic power-play. In what appears to be a direct response to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, the party’s strongholds in southern Beirut have been targeted by five devastating bombings since July last year. In the most dramatic retaliation for Hezbollah and Iranian support of the Assad regime, a twin suicide bombing hit the Iranian embassy in Beirut in November, killing 25 people. The Al-Qaeda-inspired Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the last of these bombings, on Thursday last week, a few days after the assassination of Chatah, a car bomb exploded in the predominantly Shi’a neighborhood of Haret Hreik, a southern suburb of Beirut. The Lebanese Army said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber identified through DNA tests as Qutaiba Al-Satem, a 19-year-old man from Wadi Khaled in north Lebanon, an area bordering Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also claimed responsibility for the attack. However, some Lebanese media outlets have reported that Satem’s family and local tribal leaders claimed the young man had been kidnapped by Hezbollah on December 30. In Lebanon, these things are always more complicated than they seem, and a staged attack by Hezbollah is not beyond the realm of possibility.
While the attack bore some of the hallmarks of radical Islamist suicide bombings, this particular bombing stood out compared to previous ones. The most common narrative had it that a presumed suicide bomber stepped out of the car and detonated it seconds later, killing himself. However, the act is uncharacteristic of such attacks, where bombers usually detonate while inside the car. This suggests it may have been more than a simple tit-for-tat killing following Chatah’s assassination. The next day, Hezbollah media started showing what it claimed to be the identity papers of Satem. Apparently discovered among the debris, the papers had miraculously escaped with only minor burning around the edges.
So while the Syrian inferno explains some of what is going on in Lebanon, the bombs are more than random acts of brute force and an unwieldy spillover. A closer look reveals that these violent incidents are inextricable from Lebanese political life, a life that existed before the outbreak of the war in Syria, and revolving around the deadly rivalry between the March 14 and March 8 alliances.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.