In Lebanon, Hezbollah's Challenge Grows

6 MINS READJan 2, 2014 | 22:26 GMT
In Lebanon, Hezbollah's Challenge Grows
Flames rise from burning cars at the site of an explosion in Beirut's southern suburb of Haret al-Harayk on Jan. 2.
-/AFP/Getty Images

A Jan. 2 explosion in Beirut's southern suburbs — the fifth attack targeting Hezbollah's interests since July — reveals a growing jihadist capability and intent to draw Hezbollah resources away from the Syrian battlefield and back toward Lebanon. As retaliatory sectarian attacks between Sunni jihadists and Shiite militants loyal to Hezbollah escalate over the next year, Saudi Arabia will try to use the Lebanese theater of the Syrian civil war to undermine Iran's regional negotiating position and rebalance Lebanese politics in favor of Hezbollah's local Sunni competitors.

A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device reportedly carrying about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of explosives detonated in the Haret al-Harayk area of the Dahiyeh neighborhood in Beirut's southern suburbs around 4 p.m. local time Jan. 2. Four people were killed and dozens were injured when the explosion ripped through the neighborhood. There is no indication so far that a high-value target was among the casualties. Hezbollah maintains a heavy presence in the Dahiyeh area; its security headquarters, media offices and political council are near the location of the blast. Most of the damage from the attack was absorbed by nearby cars and a nearby building that houses a restaurant.

Before this attack, Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis was gunned down in the parking garage of his Beirut apartment complex on Dec. 4, the Iranian Embassy in Beirut was targeted in a double suicide bombing Nov. 19, and two separate car bombings occurred in Beirut's southern suburbs Aug. 15 and July 9. Hezbollah claims most of Beirut's southern suburbs as its territory and has tried to maintain a heavy security presence in the area, but the group's resources are stretched as it also tries to secure vital supply routes in northern Lebanon through Syria in the Qalamoun and Qusair areas.

The Syrian Regime's Lebanese Supply Lines

The Syrian Regime's Lebanese Supply Lines

Dividing Hezbollah's Attention

Syria's rebel landscape may be fragmented, but all rebel factions can agree that Hezbollah's military participation in Syria has been integral to the Syrian regime's advances over the past year. Now, without hope of receiving large-scale non-lethal or military backing from the West to aid the insurgency, Sunni rebels working with Lebanese Sunni militants are trying to create a crisis for Hezbollah in Lebanon that would effectively divide the group's attention and give Sunni rebels a fighting chance on the Syrian battlefield. Not only have Hezbollah's fighters been instrumental in aiding the Syrian regime against the rebels, Lebanon also serves as a vital transit route for fighters, arms and supplies to reach the embattled regime's holdings in and around Damascus. Hezbollah's cooperation in securing these Lebanese transit routes is also crucial to Bashar al Assad and his backers — and something regional Sunni Arab interests have sought to disrupt.

The plan appears to be making some headway. As Stratfor noted in March 2013, many of Lebanon's Sunnis were growing disillusioned with the mainstream Sunni political movement led by the Hariri clan and were likely to turn more toward Salafist groups, many of which have received backing from Saudi Arabia.

An increasingly radical Sunni community in Lebanon and ample battlefield expertise from Sunni rebels in Syria have led to the development of a Sunni insurgency in Lebanon now capable of challenging Hezbollah on its home turf. Hezbollah still has a clear advantage in manpower, organization and professionalism in its militant capabilities compared to its emerging jihadist rivals in Lebanon. However, the group is clearly facing a growing threat at home just as its most elite fighters are focused on the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah's local competitors — namely Lebanon's Sunni Arab and Maronite Christian populations — are attempting to capitalize on Hezbollah's distraction and secure their own interests while weakening the group's position at home. This scenario has attracted the attention of regional players such as Saudi Arabia.

Though the group long tried to avoid becoming engulfed in a conflict with its Lebanese rivals, Hezbollah now has no choice but to respond to these Sunni provocations, which will only escalate sectarian fighting in Lebanon overall. Hezbollah tried to make a show of force in late August when two Sunni mosques were bombed in Tripoli in the north. On Oct. 19, the group eliminated Lebanese Internal Security Forces chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a bombing meant to disrupt Syrian rebel supply logistics. There is also widespread speculation that Hezbollah orchestrated the car bombing that killed moderate Lebanese Sunni politician Mohamad Chatah on Dec. 27. The deterrence value of Hezbollah's retaliatory attacks has degraded, however, and such attacks will only embolden Lebanon's fledgling jihadist movement.

Saudi Arabia's Limited Options

Hezbollah's growing security challenge in Lebanon will undermine its — and Iran's — negotiating position on the political front. Hezbollah has tried to use Iran's negotiation with the United States to convince Lebanon's Maronite Christian, Druze and Sunni political factions that they face little choice but to accommodate Hezbollah's political demands, including a proposal to divide up the Cabinet and reallocate seats in the parliament to give the Shia more representation. The more vulnerable Hezbollah appears in Lebanon, however, the harder it will be for the group to coerce its sectarian rivals into agreeing to its terms.

This is precisely the scenario that Saudi Arabia wants to see play out. The last thing the Saudi royals want is the potential for Iran and its allies to stabilize their regional position through an accommodation with Saudi Arabia's main external patron, the United States. With little power to derail the negotiation directly, Saudi Arabia is focusing instead on trying to degrade Iran's position in the Levant, where a spreading civil war brings many opportunities for militant sponsorship. But Riyadh knows that this strategy also carries significant drawbacks. Going too far in supporting jihadists in Syria and Lebanon could amplify the still-simmering jihadist activities on the Arabian Peninsula. One case in point is the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the Iranian Embassy bombing in Beirut and whose leader was arrested by Lebanese troops Jan. 1. This group is an asset for the Saudis in trying to challenge Hezbollah, but the Abdullah Azzam Brigades are also high on Saudi Arabia's own target list for plotting attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia also has limited options in trying to bolster the Lebanese army as a bulwark against Hezbollah. Following the Chatah assassination, Saudi Arabia announced it would give Lebanon's army $3 billion in defense aid, with weapons supplied from France. Saudi Arabia has been backing a push by Lebanese Sunni politicians to deploy the army in areas where Hezbollah has a strong presence, particularly along the northern border with Syria where Sunni rebels and Hezbollah compete over supply lines. However, the Lebanese army itself is very weak, fragmented and full of Hezbollah sympathizers. No matter how much money Riyadh gives the Lebanese forces, the army by itself will not be enough to balance against Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia will thus try to be selective in who it supports in the Lebanese and Syrian Sunni militant scene in order to keep Hezbollah in check. However, these are fluid networks that are difficult for any one state sponsor to control. While Saudi Arabia has to worry about jihadist activity spiraling beyond its control, Iran has to worry about its position weakening in the Levant at a critical point in its negotiation with the United States. As violence escalates in Lebanon between rival sects, Riyadh and Tehran could be pushed into a quiet negotiation to try to safeguard their respective interests. By the time they reach such a point, however, it will be far more difficult to enforce a truce on the actual battlefield.

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