Increase in sectarianism will lead to more bloodshed in Lebanon

The suicide attack on the Iranian cultural centre in Bir Hassan shows that radical actors on both sides are reaping the benefits of this development

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The streets of the neighbourhood of Bir Hassan shook as explosions, reportedly caused by suicide bombers using a motorcycle bomb and a stolen BMW struck the Iranian cultural centre. Eleven people were killed in the blasts last week.

The group claiming responsibility was Lebanon’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an organisation associated with Al Qaeda. While these are hardly Beirut’s first bombs related to the Syrian war, it is increasingly clear that the bloody conflict will have a more active Lebanese front. Most of all, the blasts showcase that radical actors on both sides are reaping the benefits of this development.

Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil, which Al Qaeda disaffiliated from), and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have all made efforts to increase their campaign against the Shia Islamist group Hizbollah and their Iranian backers. As a result, since the start of this year, attacks targeting mainly Shia areas have killed many civilians.

It was no mistake the Iranian cultural centre was targeted by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the same group that claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing against the Iranian embassy in November. The message is clear: Iran and Hizbollah will be hit in the perceived centres of their power. Striking targets associated with Iran, Hizbollah’s state sponsor, underlines that these groups wish to show that Hizbollah cannot even project power in its own bastions.

Complex operations, such as using double suicide bombings, are the heralded strategy. When held up to Hizbollah’s increased security and intelligence measures, the likely hope by Sunni jihadi elements would be to strike fear into Hizbollah’s establishment and in average supporters on the ground.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades responded by claiming their most recent bombing was part of an effort to get Hizbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria and to free its prisoners in Lebanese jails. Yet this campaign has done little to disengage Hizbollah or Iran from their intervention in Syria. If anything, it may be aiding Hizbollah’s narratives for continuing the war. Not only did Hizbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah state on February 16 that Hizbollah’s forces would remain in the country, he said that Al Qaeda-type groups “would have come sooner or later regardless of our involvement in Syria”.

It would be easy to assume that attacks between Sunni Salafi jihadis and Hizbollah are simple tit-for-tat operations spilling into Lebanon. Instead, they demonstrate larger sectarian currents, which play to the strengths of both the Sunni Salafi jihadis and Hizbollah.

Hizbollah has only stirred the pot and issued what could be described as self-fulfilling prophecies. Mr Nasrallah used a well-known fact to his organisation’s benefit: many Sunni Salafi jihadi organisations targeting Hizbollah are bent on destroying Shi’ism. Thus, Hizbollah can use the ravages of future car bombings as increased leverage among Lebanese Shia. To feel safe, Shia will, like it or not, be forced to back Hizbollah. Despite Mr Nasrallah’s insistence that his group is not emphasising sectarian messages, the undercurrent of his rhetorical strategy is sectarian.

Highlighting the increasingly sectarian rhetoric on both sides, the Abdullah Azzam Brigade’s unit that has carried out bombings was named after Husayn bin Ali, an important historical figure for Sunnis and Shia. For Shia Muslims Husayn was the third Imam, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and a main historical figure in the formation of Shi’ism. Shia Islamist foreign fighters in Syria wear headbands with “O Husayn” into battle and accuse their enemies of being “Nawasib” or haters of the family of the Prophet Mohammed.

In the words of jihadi specialist Aaron Zelin, “the conflict is viewed as existential by both sides.” By naming their unit after Husayn, the Sunni Salafi jihadis are trying to “take Husayn back”. Neither side wants to lose the current battle; they are far less willing to cede their history.

As sectarian tempo surges, it is likely there will come a point when a more indiscriminate and potentially devastating bombing campaign is launched. Hizbollah’s continued presence in Syria is feeding the reasons for the bombing campaign now, but as radical sectarian themes take firmer hold, bombing targets due to their being “Shia” as opposed to “Hizbollah” may become the norm. Nevertheless, this trajectory actually aids Hizbollah.

There is a strange convergence of interest among Hizbollah and Al Qaeda-type organisations. The latter’s bombing campaigns are another way to show that they, not more moderate rebel organisations, are taking the fight to the heart of a hated enemy. The actors who present the most victories gain the most followers, funds and power.

Hizbollah has sought to brand all Syrian rebels as little more than Al Qaeda. With more bombings, this narrative will continue to gain steam. The narrative also adds to Sunni Salafi jihadi organisations since it builds a mystique for them. Despite Hizbollah’s Islamist radicalism, it can present itself as more moderate, thus shifting the “Overton Window” – the range of ideas the public will accept – in its favour.

Phillip Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland. He focuses on Lebanon and Syria and specialises in Shia militias in Syria

On Twitter: PhillipSmyth