Lebanon's war with al-Qaeda: is it a losing battle?

Hezbollah is not the perpetrator but the target because of its decision to fight alongside Assad in Syria

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:41 ON Thu 20 Feb 2014

BEIRUT - Less than a minute after a soft boom rippled across the Lebanese capital early yesterday, the tweets started rolling in. "Explosion in southern suburbs of Beirut." Another day, another attack.

Until recently, Lebanon has been relatively calm and stable. Unlike Iraq or Syria, car bombs are still counted in single digits every month. But they are now coming often enough that people are no longer surprised by them. "We were due one, at least it’s out of the way now," was the general sentiment on the street yesterday.

After four months and nine deadly blasts, it's finally become clear - Lebanon has a terrorism problem. And Hezbollah, the Shia militia-turned-political party, is no longer the perpetrator, but the target. Furthermore, the car bombs, nearly all of which are either suspected or confirmed suicide attacks, are reaching deep into territory that Hezbollah is supposed to be able to protect and control.

Three hard-line Sunni groups have emerged as the driving forces behind the recent upswing in violence here: the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Lebanese branches of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, both familiar names from the Syrian civil war.

All three are affiliated with al-Qaeda, all three are concentrating their efforts on sowing fear among Hezbollah’s largely Shia civilian support base, and all three say the attacks are retribution for the party's military role in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad.

Just a year ago, no one could say for certain that al-Qaeda had actually penetrated Lebanon, a tiny country where Christians and Muslims live peacefully side by side. Now, not only are groups apparently lining up to pledge their allegiance to the global Islamist organisation, but they seem to be gaining in confidence.

Of the six car bombings so far this year, five have been claimed by one of the three groups. The common refrain when any of them claim responsibility for an attack is that they will keep going until Hezbollah withdraws from Syria.

But Hezbollah has shown no signs that it is rethinking its decision to fight alongside its two main backers - the Syrian regime and Iran - with leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah depicting Hezbollah’s role in Syria as being for the good of Lebanon.

“If these groups [the anti-Assad rebels] win in Syria … will there be a chance for anyone other than them in this country?” he said during a forceful speech last weekend. “We are convinced that we will win in this battle [in Syria], it is just a matter of time.”

There is a tacit agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army: the party controls security in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where it’s headquarters are, most of south Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa Valley, while the rest of the country is left to the state-run Army.

In this context, the Army has had some major breakthroughs in its war on terrorism, including the capture of Saudi national Majid al-Majid, one of Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ most senior leaders, and Palestinian al-Qaeda-linked militant Naim Abbas.

But despite assistance, both financial and otherwise, from Saudi Arabia and Western states including the US, Lebanon's Army is overstretched. Its biggest problem, the country's utterly porous border with Syria, remains impossible to tackle.

One of Lebanon's main border towns, Arsal, is reported to be a terrorism hub where stolen Lebanese cars are driven out to Syria, rigged with explosives and then smuggled back, ready to be dispatched to their target destination in Lebanon.

Another problem is the relative autonomy of the country’s Palestinian neighbourhoods. Ain al-Hilweh in particular appears to be turning into a massing point for militant Islamists, with the Army enjoying only a limited ability to police the southern camp.

The ongoing violence obviously has an effect on all of Lebanon, with each explosion testing the country's social cohesion. Yet with the casualties largely occurring in areas that Hezbollah is seen as being responsible for, the real question is, how much longer will the party tolerate these attacks on its reputation and its supporters?

Or perhaps more pertinent, with so many troops committed to an arguably unwinnable war in Syria, does it have any choice? ·