ARLINGTON, Virginia – The violence emanating from Syria’s sectarian civil war continued to be felt in neighboring Lebanon last week, as a suicide car bomber detonated his explosive-laden vehicle next to a Lebanese army checkpoint on the outskirts of the volatile border town of Arsal, killing three soldiers and underscoring the cross border dimensions of the conflagration sparked by the Syrian conflict.
Lebanon’s delicately knit social fabric, already badly damaged from its own fifteen year religious civil war, has been stretched to the breaking point lately by the Syrian conflict, which has acerbated long-simmering tensions between the country’s Sunni and Shia communities.
The March 29 blast, which also wounded 4 soldiers, comes as tensions between the two Islamic sects are especially acute in the area around Arsal, a predominately Sunni town that is now home to thousands of refugees who have fled the war in Syria, where a government controlled by the county’s minority Alawite sect and backed by Shia Iran is waging a brutal counterinsurgency against a rebellion dominated by Syria’s Sunni majority. Lebanon is now home to around a million Syrian refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom are Sunni.
Arsal’s mostly Sunni residents sympathize with the Sunni insurgents battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is generally supported by Lebanon’s Shia community, and the rebels have found sanctuary in the Sunni town.
Two days before the suicide attack, a raid by the Lebanese army killed a Sunni resident of Arsal who was suspected of building bombs, angering Sunni’s who claim that the military has targeted their coreligionists and done nothing to crack down on Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia Islamist political party and militia that has been providing robust support to the Assad’s governments counterinsurgency efforts. Hezbollah, which operates a virtual state-within-a-state in Lebanon and maintains a militia that is more powerful than the Lebanese military, has deployed Shia fighters to Syria to help its government put down the uprising by the country’s Sunni majority.
A series of violent incidents in and around Arsal since the beginning of the year has also heightened tensions between residents of the Sunni town and adjacent Shia areas. The town has been the target of a number of rocket attacks that Arsals’ residents say emanate from neighboring Shia areas. A day after a suicide bombing struck the nearby Shia town of Hermel on January 16, leaving three people dead, 11 rockets crashed into Arsal, killing at least seven people, five of whom were children .
The tit-for-tat violence continued on February 1, as a suicide car bomber detonated his explosive-laden vehicle near a gas station in Hermel, a bastion of support for Hezbollah, a longtime ally of both Iran and Syria.
The violence in Arsal is partially a byproduct of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria’s civil war, which began when the Iranian-backed Shia group sent fighters across the border in May 2013 to help the Syrian government retake the strategic border town of Qusair. Qusair had been under the control of rebel forces since early 2012, but with the help of Hezbollah’s well-trained fighters, the Assad government was able to seize control of the town in early June following a three-week battle that enraged the Shia groups’ Sunni opponents in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, openly acknowledged at the time that his groups fighters were operating in Syria, characterizing the civil war in Syria as a battle against Israel, the U.S. and fanatical Sunni Islamists known as Takfiri’s.
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, 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.
Sources: BBC, The Daily Star: Arsal Car Bombing, The Daily Star: Major Assault, The Daily Star: Rigged SUV, UNHCR