HERMEL, Lebanon – A car bomb tore through the Lebanese border town of Hermel on Saturday, killing at least four people in an attack that targeted a stronghold of the Shia Islamist group Hezbollah. Saturday’s blast, which occurred near a petrol station, underscored the regional dimensions of the civil war raging in neighboring Syria, where rebels supported by Lebanon’s Sunni community are battling a government backed by Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful Shia organization.
The sectarian tensions unleashed by Syria’s civil war, in which a government controlled by the country’s minority Alawite sect and backed by Shia Iran and Hezbollah is attempting to put down a rebellion dominated by Syria’s Sunni majority, have been particularly palpable in neighboring Lebanon, home to 17 disparate religious sects. Marwan Charbel, the country’s interior minister, said he believed a suicide bomber was responsible for Saturday’s attack in the town of Hermel, which is located in the eastern Bekaa Valley close to the Syrian border. No group asserted responsibility for the bombing, which also wounded at least 15 people.
Saturday’s blast follows a January 16 bombing in Hermel, a predominately Shia town, that killed five people and wounded 20 others.
Sunnis in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East largely support the Sunni insurgents battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Shia-backed regime and the conflict has fueled tensions between the two Islamic sects across the region. The Sunni-Shia tensions stoked by Syria’s nearly three year long sectarian conflict are particularly evident in Lebanon, where scars from the country’s 1975 to 1990 religious civil war still run deep.
The crackdown on the largely Sunni rebels by Assad’s security forces, who are supported in their campaign by Shia fighters from Hezbollah, Iran and Iraqi militias, has enraged the insurgents Sunni brethren in Lebanon and across the region. This anger reached a fever pitch last May, when Hezbollah, or Party of God, openly joined the Assad’s governments campaign to crush the rebellion by Syria’s Sunni majority.
Hezbollah’s overt intervention in Syria’s civil war on the side of Assad’s regime began when the Iranian-backed Shia group sent fighters across the border to help the Syrian government retake the strategic border town of Qusair, which had been under the control of rebel forces since early 2012. Assad’s security forces, aided by Shia fighters from Hezbollah, were able to seize control of Qusair in early June following a three-week battle that enraged the Shia groups’ Sunni opponents in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria’s sectarian conflict ushered in a violent period in Lebanon, as militant Sunni groups unleashed a wave of bombings against Hezbollah and Shia targets. On July 9, 2013, a car bomb tore through Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, wounding more than 50 people in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of the capitol.
A little more than a month later, on August 15, an explosion emanating from a car bomb once again ripped through Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Shia area of the city that is a bastion of support for the Party of God, killing 30 people and injuring more than 300 others in the neighborhood of Ruwaiss.
The attacks targeting Assad’s allies continued on November 19, 2013 when twin suicide blasts struck ripped through the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing 25 people and underscoring the cross border dimensions of Syria’s civil war.
Syria’s conflict has accentuated the strong bonds linking Iran, Hezbollah and Syria, three longtime allies who share an antipathy towards the U.S., Israel and Washington’s Sunni Arab allies. Although Assad’s Alawite-dominated-but staunchly secular-regime bears little resemblance to the Shia Islamist ideology of Iran and Hezbollah, the three allies have a mutual objective of countering the influence of the U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies in the Middle East. Aside from allowing ethnically Persian Iran to extend its influence into the Arab world, Syria provides a land bridge for Iranian weapons to reach Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party, social movement and fighting force that holds seats in the Lebanese cabinet and parliament and maintains a militia that is more powerful than the Lebanese military.
– Eric Erdahl