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.
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.
“We are probably going to see more violence and more political instability, but hopefully short of a civil war,” Mr. Atallah said in a Skype interview from Beirut. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
“No one [in Lebanon] has the incentive to actually go out and have a war in Lebanon,” Mr. Atallah said.
He said that since the start of the Syrian war, Beirut has been rocked by three types of attacks: those that are seen as payback for Hezbollah’s role in Syria and target its strongholds; the assassination of critics of the Assad regime and Hezbollah; and the targeted killings of Hezbollah leaders.
“There are several actors, and each one has its own agenda,” Mr. Atallah said.
Hezbollah, which the U.S. designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, is stronger and better equipped than the Lebanese army. Faysal Itani, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says this fact is likely to prevent Lebanon from becoming engulfed in a war.
“The weakness of the Lebanese state is partly its strength,” said Mr. Itani. “The main thing preventing an all-out outbreak of violence is that everybody who is opposed to Hezbollah is also significantly weaker than Hezbollah. As long as that is the case, I don’t see a total collapse of the situation in Lebanon.”
Syria and Lebanon historically have had a tense relationship.
Syria sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 as a result of the civil war. The troops remained in Lebanon until 2005, when the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sparked the Cedar Revolution, which forced Syria to withdraw.
Hariri’s assassination deepened the political schism between the Assad regime’s opponents, represented by the March 14 movement, which is led by Hariri’s son, Saad, and the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition.
A U.N.-backed special tribunal opens this month to try four Hezbollah members who have been implicated in the Hariri assassination.
Besides the political divisions, “the large Sunni-Shiite fault line runs through Iraq and Syria, and also through Lebanon,” Mr. Salem said. “Iran supporting Shiite groups and Saudi Arabia supporting Sunni groups makes matters worse.”
This week, the Lebanese military attacked two Syrian helicopters near its border. The unusual offensive action was taken a day after Saudi Arabia gave Lebanon a $3 billion grant to buy arms from France. The grant is the single-largest ever to be given to the Lebanese army.
The Saudi move is widely seen as an attempt to blunt the force of Hezbollah and, by doing so, of Iran.
“It is very remarkable that Saudi Arabia, a major player in the region and certainly one quite engaged in supporting the rebels in Syria and very concerned about Iranian and Hezbollah influence, would make this major, major grant to the Lebanese army,” said Mr. Salem.
Mr. Atallah said the Saudi support for the Lebanese military was a result of the kingdom’s anger over the rapprochement between the West and Iran. He warned that this support could undermine the military.
“If [the Saudis] are trying to get the [Lebanese] army to go against Hezbollah, it will have serious repercussions,” Mr. Atallah said. “Pushing the army to be on one side and against another side could potentially undermine its ability to maintain law and order.”
Besides worsening the security situation in Lebanon, the Syrian war has pushed more than 800,000 refugees into Lebanon. Instead of camps, these refugees live in cities and towns where they compete for already stretched resources.
“This is a problem without a solution,” said Mr. Itani.