Lebanon: Hezbollah's Next Battle After Qusair

5 MINS READMay 24, 2013 | 10:01 GMT
Gunmen inside a building in the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli, Lebanon.
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

As Hezbollah and Syrian loyalist forces have stepped up an offensive in the Syrian city of Qusair to strengthen their grip on the vital Homs crossroads, it is no coincidence that the volatile district of Tripoli in northern Lebanon is also witnessing a flare-up between Alawites and Sunnis. With backing from Salafists in Tripoli, Syrian rebels routed from Qusair could attempt to draw Hezbollah's attention away from the city by triggering sectarian clashes in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will pick its battles carefully to preserve its strength and to pre-empt Sunni attempts to disrupt northern Lebanese supply routes into Syria. Both agendas point to increased violence in northern Lebanon.

Tripoli entered its sixth day of sectarian clashes May 22. At least 17 people have been killed, two of who were Lebanese soldiers while the rest were civilians, and more than 100 have been wounded so far. Sniper fire on both sides of the conflict has largely halted traffic on the main highway from Tripoli east to the district of Akkar. The Lebanese army, heavily prone to sectarian fragmentation and thus highly reluctant to intervene forcefully, is doing little to contain the violence, but it has been causing considerable collateral damage with its own machine gun fire against suspected snipers.

The violence is centered on two warring neighborhoods, the predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh district and the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen.

For decades, residents of these neighborhoods have traded fire periodically. During the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, Alawites in Jabal Mohsen sided with Syrian troops who had entered Lebanon to take on the al-Tawhid Movement, a Sunni Islamist group based in Bab al Tabbaneh. The neighborhoods have remained heavily armed since then, and their periodic battles have been in many ways microcosms of the region's broader sectarian conflicts.

So far, the latest flare-up in Tripoli has not surpassed the levels of violence typical in these neighborhoods. Reverberations from Hezbollah's successful offensive against Sunni rebels in Qusair, however, could lead to greater instability in Lebanon's northern rim.

Tripoli, Lebanon

Tripoli, Lebanon

Located in the Orontes River Valley, Qusair sits astride a supply route that is highly coveted by Syrian rebels and loyalists alike. Control over the city is critical to controlling the Syrian city of Homs, the vital crossroads linking Damascus to the Alawite-dominated coast and the Syrian city of Aleppo. The success of Hezbollah and loyalists so far in reducing Sunni resistance from Qusair is thus a major blow to the rebels. With loyalist forces and Hezbollah working to consolidate control of the main northern approach to Damascus (while loyalists also steadily regain strength along the main southern approaches to Damascus), the rebels' momentum is ebbing quickly.

The Syrian rebels understand that Hezbollah's steady buildup in Qusair over the past year played a key role in reinforcing the ability of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime to hold Homs. Dismayed by their losses at Qusair , some rebels may adjust their strategy to try to weaken Hezbollah's ability to reinforce Syrian troops. Rumors are circulating in the region that many fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Syrian Islamist rebel group, in Qusair have retreated to northern Lebanon and that plans are brewing for an attempted Sunni offensive on the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen. Lebanese Sunni fighters who joined the battle for Qusair are also reportedly returning home to fight.

Hezbollah fears that at least some Syrian rebels will try to draw on Lebanese Salafist support to open another front with Hezbollah in Lebanon and thus deflect the group's attention from the Syrian front. These concerns have been amplified by the recent fighting in Tripoli and by renewed attempts by Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir to rile up resistance against Hezbollah in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. Tripoli, a stronghold for Salafists and a sectarian powder keg as illustrated by the Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen clashes, is the logical place to attempt to trigger a sectarian showdown. But Hezbollah will be careful to avoid being drawn too deeply into a fight to reinforce Alawites in Tripoli and look instead to fighters from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Lebanese pro-Syrian political party, to help Tripoli's Alawites strand their ground if fighting escalates.

Hezbollah is well aware of the risks to its operations in Syria. The dozens of casualties the group has suffered in the fight for Qusair have generated debate among Hezbollah supporters over whether they should remain heavily invested in al-Assad's fight, considering the losses of young fighters needed at home to defend against an emboldened Sunni community. Hezbollah has thus carefully avoided provocations by Lebanese Salafists, preferring to preserve its strength for future clashes with its Sunni adversaries.

The Syrian Regime's Lebanese Supply Lines

The Syrian Regime's Lebanese Supply Lines

But maintaining control over key Lebanese supply routes into Syria will remain high on Hezbollah's list of priorities. As the group maintains its position in Qusair, it will devote attention to securing the Lebanese approaches to the city. There are two main supply routes that run through northern Lebanon into Syria. One extends northward from Hezbollah's stronghold in the Bekaa Valley through Baalbek district and up to Qusair. Another, more tenuous route stretches eastward from the port of Tripoli along the main highway through Akkar and onward to Qusair.

Hezbollah's next task is to prevent the Sunnis from disrupting these supply routes into northern Lebanon. While Syrian loyalist forces focus on retaking the Syrian city of Talkhalakh just north of the Lebanese border, Hezbollah — with backing from Shiite fighters from the sizable al-Jaafar clan in the Lebanese district of Hermil — will try to concentrate their forces on Akroum, a Sunni village that sits on the route through Akkar district. The battle over these supply lines will drive the Syrian spillover of violence into Lebanon, particularly in the wake of rebel losses at Qusair.

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