Syria's Rebels Risk Starting a Premature Conflict in Lebanon
4 MINS READFeb 22, 2013 | 14:34 GMT
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian anti-regime protesters wave a pre-Baath Syrian flag, now used by the Free Syrian Army, during a demonstration in Aleppo
Hezbollah is known to aid Alawite forces in Syria, and as the Syrian rebellion gains momentum, the rebel Free Syrian Army and allied Lebanese Sunni fighters are starting to challenge the Shiite militant group more directly. On Feb. 21, after issuing a flurry of threats against Hezbollah, the Free Syrian Army claimed to have attacked Hezbollah positions. Both sides subsequently denied those claims, but the day's events revealed both the inevitability of the Syrian conflict's spilling into Lebanon and the fears both sides have of prematurely precipitating such hostilities.
The Free Syrian Army warned in a statement Feb. 21 that it would attack Hezbollah inside Lebanese territory if Hezbollah did not stop shelling Syrian villages from Lebanon within 48 hours. The Free Syrian Army then claimed to have attacked Hezbollah. In a first alleged attack, fighters supposedly targeted two Hezbollah vehicles in Syria's western Al-Qusayr district with machine guns and anti-tank weaponry. A second attack allegedly struck northern Lebanon's Hermel province and consisted of several Free Syrian Army brigades launching mortar shells on a Hezbollah artillery position in the mostly Alawite village of Hosh al-Sayyed Ali. Later in the day, the Free Syrian Army denied attacking Hezbollah at all.
These events provide a glimpse into how Syria's Sunni rebellion will eventually challenge Hezbollah's position in Lebanon. Despite the Free Syrian Army's denial of involvement in the attacks, Stratfor has received information that the rebel group recently has tried to target Hezbollah. In addition to the alleged attack in Hermel province, three Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed Feb. 20 in an attack on a Lebanese village in the northern Bekaa Valley.
Clashes between Hezbollah and Sunni fighters on both sides of the Syria-Lebanon border are inevitable, and small-scale skirmishes have already taken place as both sides try to secure their own supply lines into Syria and interdict those of their adversary. Stratfor highlighted last year how Hezbollah fighters were particularly active in the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr, since controlling that bulge of the Orontes River Valley basin was crucial to the group's efforts to pool resources for an Alawite-Shiite enclave in the northern Bekaa Valley. Such an enclave will become particularly important when Alawite forces lose control of Damascus and when Syria disassembles into a patchwork of ethnic and religious territories. Hezbollah has already assumed control of several Shiite villages along the river basin and is trying to hold its position against encroaching Free Syrian Army rebels. Hezbollah's position in the Al-Qusayr region has been critical to helping the Syrian regime stabilize the Homs area and keep its supply lines to the coast and the north open. It therefore comes as little surprise that the Free Syrian Army is claiming fresh attacks on Hezbollah in Al-Qusayr, where Hezbollah and Free Syrian Army fighters have already clashed in recent months.
Should Sunni rebels start to feel more confident in their militant campaign against Alawite forces in Syria, these sorts of clashes are likely to become more frequent, and they will reach deeper into Lebanon as Hezbollah tries to demonstrate the costs of challenging its still-powerful position as a militant group in the country. Salafist leaders in Sidon in southern Lebanon are already threatening to storm Hezbollah's apartments in the area, which could serve as another catalyst for sectarian clashes in the country. Hezbollah understands the difficulty it will face in losing its supply lines through Syria, but it remains the largest, best trained and best equipped militia in the region.
That reputation alone will not spare Hezbollah from an emboldened Sunni resistance, however. Many Lebanese Sunnis, as well as more transnationally-minded Salafists, are keen on expanding the Sunni rebellion into Lebanon to challenge the authority of Shiite Hezbollah. But as the rush of denials revealed Feb. 21, there are still many Sunnis who fear that a fight with Hezbollah, when Alawite forces are still present in Damascus, would be premature. Likewise, Hezbollah is not looking to rush into a fight with its Sunni adversaries. The group is focused on preparing for a post-al Assad security environment, and a large part of that preparation entails gearing up for what may be an unavoidable civil war in Lebanon.