Analysts said the Sunday attack, which wounded four people – three of them Syrian workers – was a long time in the making, and directly related to Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the battle for Qusayr.
“The Lebanese intelligence and security officers have been expecting attacks on the Beirut south suburbs and other Shiite districts in Lebanon for six months,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“What we’re seeing is a natural and inevitable consequence of the growing involvement of Hezbollah in Syria. Of course it is correlated to the speech.”
Bloody sectarian clashes have been ongoing in the northern city of Tripoli, with fighting between rival Alawite and Sunni neighborhoods aggravated by the conflict next door, but Kahwaji said that Sunday marked the “first shot” to reach Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“We should expect more such attacks,” he added.
Aram Nerguizian, analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), called the rocket strike a “retaliation for Nasrallah’s speech yesterday and the operation in Qusayr. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.”
Fighting in Syria Doesn’t Avoid War at Home
In his televised speech marking the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Nasrallah sought to justify the Shiite militant group’s role in Syria’s war by casting fellow Muslims and Arabs as an external threat.
“We consider these groups gaining control of certain Syrian provinces, especially bordering Lebanon, as a great danger to the Lebanese people,” Nasrallah told thousands of supporters gathered to see his speech broadcast on mega screens.
Nasrallah proclaimed that he was working against such attacks on Lebanese soil and that his men were fighting takfiris in Syria, a reference to Sunni fundamentalists of extremist ideology.
“What kind of future is in store for Syria in light of such a mind-set of such groups? Let’s put aside sectarianism, this is a real danger,” he said. “We in Lebanon are being told that this disease is heading our way … Only an idiot watches such a conspiracy approaching him without taking any steps. We consider that we are defending Lebanon and Palestine in Syria.” He argued that Hezbollah must fight extremists abroad before they come across the border.
Analysts see it as indicative of a deeper strategic calculation.
“Hezbollah believes that if they do nothing in Syria, it is only a matter of time before Assad is overwhelmed by regional events,” added Nerguizian. “At best, there will be a political ascendency of the Sunnis and at worse, a virulent takfiri ideology. If we do nothing, then it will be at our doorstep.”
Kahwaji said that while Nasrallah spoke out against allowing the fight to reach Lebanon, the choice is not in the militant group’s hands.
“In his speech he said that whoever wants to settle scores with Hezbollah from either side, let’s do the fighting in Syria and exclude Lebanon. I think this is not realistic at all … whenever the fighting takes on a sectarian dimension there are no controls, and the spillover becomes very big,” he said.
Karim Bitar, an analyst at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), said Nasrallah’s argument harkened back to the U.S. “war on terror. He is using George W. Bush’s argument that we’re fighting in Iraq so they would not come to America. But al-Qaida was empowered by what happened in Iraq, and the number of anti-American fundamentalists increased exponentially,” he said, predicting a similar backlash against Hezbollah.
A Strategic Rationale, a Sectarian Perception
The new orientation is coming at a steep cost for Hezbollah, both in terms of lives lost and its reputation in the region.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the watchdog that gathers reports from activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals throughout Syria, reports that at least 165 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the country. Of those, more than 100 were killed in the past 10 days.
“This is not going to be a walk in the park for Hezbollah,” said Bitar. “Paradoxically it might be more difficult than fighting Israel in Lebanon. When Israel invades Lebanon it employs ruthless air power, but they are cautious when it comes to losing their soldiers. What is happening in Syria is a man-to-man battle with Sunni militiamen who are ready to die.”
Bitar noted that while Hezbollah is accused of being involved for sectarian reasons, their rationale is “more ideological and geo-strategic than anything else. The purpose is to protect Hezbollah’s back and the free flow of weapons coming from Iran through Syria. But even if their rationale is not sectarian, it will nonetheless deepen Sunni–Shiite rifts in Lebanon.”
He added that a few years ago, Egyptians were raising posters of Nasrallah at al-Azhar University, Egypt’s predominant center of Sunni theology. “He was a pan-Arab hero uniting Sunnis and Shiites. Now this is shattered. Hezbollah is back to square one, with people in Lebanon and rest of the Arab world accusing them of being an Iranian proxy.”
“The resistance as the Shiites, the Lebanese and the region have known it is all but gone,” said Nerguizian. “The way Hezbollah sold itself to its constituents and the region no longer stands. Regional Sunni opinion has shifted against Hezbollah.”
“They are going to have to work 24/7 to prevent internal backlash, because if sectarian war was to break out in Lebanon, Hezbollah is doomed,” said Kahwaji. “If it comes to Lebanon, that means it’s a sectarian war and Hezbollah is nothing more than a Shiite faction – a party to an internal war in Lebanon.”
With an already weak Lebanese state, it will be difficult for the security forces to help quell rising tensions, which have already been boiling to the surface with a bloody week of clashes in Tripoli.
“We have a major dilemma. Lebanon is heading towards turmoil with its military, political and security institutions in a state of paralysis,” said Kahwaji.