19 Nov 2013

Is Beirut bomb a harbinger for Syria’s vulnerable neighbour

It is such a horribly familiar scene in Beirut – the shattered glass, the row of burnt-out vehicles, the balcony with a bright green toy car left after the family rushed out after the blast.

A thin youth in a blood-spattered blue shirt was wandering around looking for his brother. A thick-set man with greying hair told me that his co-worker’s two sons were at the hospital undergoing operations, but he had no idea where his colleague was. Red Crescent ambulances ferried away the injured, while police taped off the scene for forensics experts.

Every car bomb brings back memories of Beirut in the 1980s when Sunni, Shia, Druze and Maronite fought each other in a civil war that ended in an uneasy power-sharing deal. Peace is too definite a word for the precarious arrangement that has permitted Lebanon to prosper but which failed to tackle the root of the problem. Now, the war next door in Syria is watering those roots with potentially disastrous results.

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Hezbollah, the Iranian backed Shi’a group that controls Beirut’s southern suburbs, is fighting to save President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. A force of several thousand is said to be engaged in the battle for Qalamoun, between Damascus and the Lebanese border. This is a sectarian struggle, with Assad’s minority Alawites backed by Shi’a forces from across the region.

A Sunni Islamist group called the Brigades of Aisha claimed the August bombing, saying they were targeting Hezbollah, whom they saw as Iranian agents. A jihadist group affiliated to al-Qaeda and known as the Abdullah Azzam brigades say they carried out today’s attack on the Iranian embassy.

All around the bomb site, lightly bearded young men tried to stop us filming. These were Hezbollah loyalists who rule the streets of south Lebanon – the police and uniformed military securing the site have to cooperate with them. Most gave the stock answer when I asked whom they blamed: Israel. The Iranian government also laid the blame at Israel’s door.

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But the old enemy is no longer the most potent. A headscarfed woman said: “I blame Saudi Arabia”. The jihadists – some backed by Qatar and Saudi – have become the most effective fighters against Bashar al-Assad in Syria but they’re not winning the war. The intervention of Hezbollah and Iranian forces appears to have turned the tide in the Syrian government’s favour. Government forces are reportedly driving the opposition from the Qalamoun area, and advancing on rebel-held Aleppo.

Today’s bomb in Beirut may be a harbinger if things to come. If the jihadis cannot beat Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, they may increase attacks on targets elsewhere. Lebanon is the most vulnerable of Syria’s neighbours. No wonder it feels ever more fragile.

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