Hezbollah has been expecting Sunni retaliation for its support for the Syrian regime. A slew of roadside bomb attacks shows it has begun.
A roadside bomb exploded Tuesday beside a convoy of SUVs believed to be carrying members of Hezbollah, reportedly killing one man and wounding two others.
The attack on a main road in eastern Lebanon is the latest in a slew of recent incidents targeting Hezbollah, marking the fulfillment of a long warned-about retaliation for its battlefield support of the Syrian regime. It was the fourth roadside bomb attack in five weeks to target suspected Hezbollah vehicles in the Bekaa Valley.
Although no one has claimed responsibility, it was almost certainly carried out by Sunni militants in retribution for the Lebanese Shiite militant group’s help crushing the Syrian opposition forces.
The bomb exploded mid-afternoon as three SUVs passed along the highway between Masnaa, a town on the Lebanon-Syria border, and Majdal Anjar, a town known to harbor Sunni radicals, according to local reports. One report claimed that the targeted SUV came under gunfire after the bomb exploded. Although the size of the bomb is unknown, it is believed to be the first to cause casualties since the roadside attacks began last month.
The first bomb on June 10 targeted a minibus allegedly carrying Hezbollah fighters en route to Syria, apparently without causing casualties. Then, on June 25, a small roadside bomb filled with nails exploded in the Bekaa town of Zahle, again without causing casualties. And on July 7, two bombs exploded in the northern Bekaa near a Lebanese Army checkpoint. The first blast reportedly targeted a Hezbollah vehicle. The second explosion minutes later wounded two Lebanese soldiers who were investigating the incident. A third bomb nearby was subsequently discovered and defused by the Army.
The roadside bomb attacks come at a time of heightened tensions between Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis, who are bitterly divided over the conflict ravaging Syria. Sunnis generally support the mainly Sunni Syrian opposition and hundreds of Lebanese Sunnis are fighting with rebel groups or helping in a logistical capacity.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has deployed an estimated several thousand fighters – the exact figure is unknown – into Syria to assist the Assad regime. Syrian rebels and Hezbollah sources say that the Lebanese party is operating in numerous conflict zones, including Homs and Damascus, as well as the provinces of Deraa in the south and Aleppo in the north. Last month, after 17 days of fighting, Hezbollah forces seized from rebels the strategic town of Qusayr. Its lead role in the assault on Qusayr, which lies along the road between Homs and Damascus, triggered angry vows of retaliation from the rebel Free Syrian Army and their supporters.
On June 9, a bomb estimated at between 66 and 88 pounds of explosives blew up in the densely-populated Bir Abed neighborhood of southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, wounding 53 people. Sources close to Hezbollah say that the bomb was discovered shortly before it was detonated, allowing the party’s security officers to begin evacuating civilians. The powerful blast destroyed several vehicles and smashed glass in the neighborhood, but caused no fatalities.
Since then, at least two more bombs have been discovered in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut, according to sources close to Hezbollah and Lebanese media reports. One was found last week near a local municipality building and another was found Saturday night beside the headquarters of the Higher Shiite Council, a religious foundation.
Last week, Lebanese media reported that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had warned Lebanese authorities that Al Qaeda had smuggled a large quantity of explosives into Lebanon to be detonated in Hezbollah areas. Sources close to Hezbollah have confirmed the essence of the reports although there are discrepancies about the amount of explosives.
Shiite areas of Lebanon are bracing for more attacks. The Shiite community as a whole has accepted Hezbollah’s explanation for fighting in Syria, despite the risk of blowback. Hezbollah has kept up support by arguing that Lebanon’s diverse communities stand to be threatened by radical Al Qaeda-style militants if the Assad regime falls, and it blames the US and Israel for seeking to weaken the long-standing alliance between the Shiite party, its patron Iran, and Syria.
But if bomb attacks continue, next time bringing heavy casualties, Shiite support for Hezbollah’s role in Syria could come into question.