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Conflicts in Syria and Iraq Raising Fears of Contagion in Divided Lebanon

BEIRUT, Jun 20 2014 (IPS) - With jihadists leading a Sunni uprising against Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are beginning to reverberate across the region, raising fears of contagion in divided Lebanon where a suicide bombing took place on Friday after a period of calm.

The advance on Baghdad of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is threatening a fragile quiet in Lebanon. On Friday, an explosion rocked the mountainous Dahr al-Baydar crossing in the Bekaa region as a suicide bomber blew himself up near an Internal Security Forces checkpoint. The bombing took place shortly after the convoy of General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim had passed.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that two people were killed and a number of others were wounded in the attack. “The danger resides in the dormant terrorist cells that exist across the country, we have uncovered several plots and security breaches in the last week alone,” said a Lebanese army officer speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Weapons held both by Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian factions are a source of constant threat for Lebanon, which is the scene of a permanent struggle” – Wehbe Katisha, retired Lebanese general and military expert

A document from Israel’s Mossad secret service, published by local newspaper An-Nahar on the day of explosion reported that Islamists with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades planned to assassinate a senior Lebanese security official, possibly General Ibrahim.

The kick-off early this year of a security plan has allowed the arrest of several terrorists who were responsible for a string of bombings targeting Shiite regions, where populations support the Hezbollah militant group.  The organisation is currently heavily involved in Syria where some 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are believed to be spearheading operations alongside troops of President Bachar Assad, according to a source close to the party.

The Syrian uprising has been led largely by Syrian Sunnis waging war against a government headed by the Assad clan, which belongs to the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

While Hezbollah’s control of borders areas in Syria has disrupted supply lines which allowed for the transfer of booby-trapped cars from Syria into Lebanon has damaged the capabilities of terror groups, it has not put a complete end to it, according to experts.

There are still illegal passageways for the transfer of ammunition or explosives, both in the Bekaa and North Lebanon areas,” said Wehbe Katisha, a retired Lebanese general and military expert.

Against this background, new reports are also pointing to possible attacks on Dahieh (Beirut’s southern suburbs and a bastion for Hezbollah), added Katisha. Early this week, members of Hezbollah and the Lebanese army boosted security measures around the area after news that a terrorist group might attack two hospitals in the region.

General Wehbe Katisha stressed that the state’s institution’s weakness combined with the proliferation of Sunni jihadist networks as well as Shiite militias are factors conducive to renewed sectarian violence. “Weapons held both by Shiite Hezbollah and Palestinian factions are a source of constant threat for Lebanon, which is the scene of a permanent struggle,” he pointed out.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have played a major role in the string of bombings that took place last year and early this year.  One of the main networks dismantled by the Lebanese armed forces was headed by Palestinian commander Naim Abbas, a member of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, an affiliate of the Syrian radical organisation, the Nusra Front.

The organisation has claimed the twin suicide bombing targeting last November of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, staged by a Lebanese and a Palestinian national. “Reports are showing that Palestinian radical groups in refugee camps are getting restless and more active,” said the security source.  The situation in Lebanon’s main Palestinian camp Ain al-Hilweh is precarious amid reports of a growing influx of foreign extremist Sunni militants from Syria and other Lebanese areas.

This opinion is also shared by Katisha who added that Palestinian groups can be easily manipulated by foreign groups while some Syrian refugees in the Bekaa are willing to fight Hezbollah.

In an attempt to shield the country from the Iraqi violence, the Lebanese Army has carried out raids on Syrian refugee camps in Ersal, on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The outskirts of Ersal are now home to a few thousands Syrian rebels who withdrew from Syrian border regions after they were reclaimed by Assad’s forces and Hezbollah. Early this month, three teens were briefly kidnapped and tortured, with local media reports linking the abduction to the Nusra Front.

“Al-Qaeda does not have an official presence in Lebanon but many individuals have adopted its discourse and are taking advantage of the rising Sunni-Shiite rivalry in Lebanon. The events in Iraq, with the surge of Sunnis against the divisive policies of (Shiite prime minister) Nouri Maliki, are finding a strong echo among the country’s marginalized Sunni. There is a feeling that in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, the struggle is the same for Sunnis who are repressed by Iranian proxy groups,” said Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Nabil Rahim.

The messages of al-Qaeda’s affiliates such as ISIS and the Nusra Front are becoming more appealing to Lebanese Sunnis who are angry at Hezbollah’s increasing military clout over Lebanon as well as its involvement in the war against the Sunni majority’s revolution in Syria.

Since 2005, and the killing of the country’s Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, a member of the Sunni community, followed by the toppling in 2011 of the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanese Sunnis are increasingly at odds with Hezbollah. Five members of the militant group are currently being tried in absentia for the killing of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

“The latest development in Iraq will certainly fuel sectarian tensions in the region as well as Lebanon. It is also increasing the popularity of ISIS among Sunnis in certain areas in Lebanon, something we are trying to fight,” explained Sheikh Rahim.

Only days after the surge of ISIS in Iraq, Lebanon has once again been drawn into the circle of regional violence, the gains of ISIS hundreds of kilometres away seemingly emboldening radical groups in the ‘Land of the Cedars’.

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