- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2014

Syria’s war is spilling into its neighborhood almost three years after it started, but nowhere is it doing more damage than in Lebanon, where bombings and assassinations have become routine and nearly 1 million refugees from the conflict are pushing the country to its breaking point.

The tense relationship between Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shiites has been exacerbated by the war that has pitted Sunnis against Shiite supporters of Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad, an Alawi. The Alawis are a branch of Shiite Islam.

“There is no doubt that the war in Syria has become an existential threat to Lebanon,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

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Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s decision to send thousands of his militants to fight alongside Mr. Assad’s army has prompted a violent backlash against the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group.

On Thursday, a Hezbollah stronghold in a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, was rocked by a suspected car bomb that killed at least five people and wounded dozens.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV broadcast images of burning cars and badly damaged buildings from the scene of the rush-hour bombing in the Haret Hreik neighborhood.

The Obama administration condemned the violence in the “strongest terms,” said Marie Harf, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman.

“We urge all parties to refrain from retaliatory acts that would further escalate tensions and threaten Lebanon’s stability and the lives and livelihoods of the Lebanese people,” she said. “The Lebanese people must be allowed to carry on their lives free from fear of attacks.”

On Dec. 27, Mohamad Chatah, a former Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. and a vocal critic of Mr. Assad and Hezbollah, was killed in a car bombing in downtown Beirut.

Mr. Chatah’s assassination shattered the illusion of safety in the urban center, which until then had been spared the violence that has in recent months rocked the Shiite-dominated southern neighborhoods of the capital.

Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities on Monday arrested a man suspected of being the leader of a group with ties to al Qaeda. An unidentified Lebanese security official who is close to the investigation told The Associated Press that the man is believed to be Majid al-Majid, a Saudi citizen and commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which has claimed responsibility for twin bombings outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November that killed 23 people and injured more than 150.

Mr. Salem said the perception of the Syrian conflict as a threat to Lebanon comes “particularly since Hezbollah announced openly in May of last year that it was entering [the war in Syria] as a fighting force on the side of the Assad regime.”

Syrian rebels responded by claiming the right to attack Hezbollah in its strongholds inside Lebanon.

“It was the direct escalation from Hezbollah which dragged Lebanon more directly into the war in Syria,” Mr. Salem said.

In Beirut, this is one of two competing narratives on Hezbollah’s decision to fight in Syria. The second one is that “Hezbollah sees the war in Syria as an existential threat to its party and hence it needs to go to Syria and fight it there,” said Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut.

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