Syrian Factions Fight Proxy War in Neighboring Lebanon

Radical Sunni groups target Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.

The Lebanese flag flies over the palace of Beit ed-Dine, April 20, 2010
The Lebanese flag flies over the palace of Beit ed-Dine, April 20, 2010 (Guillaume Piolle)

If one needed any evidence that the violence engulfing Syria was seriously affecting its neighbors, Wednesday’s double suicide attack in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, would be enough to support the theory.

The small country meshed between Israel, Syria and the Mediterranean has seen its fair share of turbulence over the past several decades, including a civil war among Lebanon’s multiple religious communities that lasted for fifteen years. Yet as bad as that violence was, Lebanese from all religious denominations are increasingly concerned that their country is once again on the cusp of another bloody conflict — this time emanating from the war next door.

In addition to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland for Lebanon’s border towns, the violence that is tearing Syria apart is having a more deadly affect for thousands of Lebanese. The war is slowly seeping into Lebanon’s own neighborhoods.

Indeed, after three years of an increasingly dire sectarian conflict in Syria, Lebanon has found itself at a dangerous precipice, with young men in the country’s Shia and Sunni communities contributing to the sectarian character of the war by becoming a part of the fight.

Hezbollah, the most powerful militia in the Arab world and a group with a three decade long relationship with Iran and Syria, continues to send hundreds of its troops to battle the Syrian opposition on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanese Sunnis have responded to the influx in much the same way, volunteering to join one of the many rebel factions desperately trying to overthrow a regime that is widely portrayed as murderous, dictatorial and dependent on Iran.

As long as the fight was kept within Syria’s borders, Lebanon could escape major blowback. Yet over the past several months, Lebanese — Shia and Sunni alike — have increasingly been drawn into Syria’s conflict for no fault of their own.

Since late last year, car bombings and suicide attacks have become a regular occurrence, all of which have been motivated by Syria’s three-year old civil war. Most of these attacks have been perpetrated by radical Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda trying to strike a hard blow at Hezbollah, a vastly important force multiplier for an Assad regime attempting to claw back opposition territory in the center and north of the country.

The double bombing near the Iranian cultural center in Beirut, which killed ten people and destroyed whole storefronts in the area, was intended to send a direct message to Iran and Hezbollah: stop supporting the Syrian regime or prepare yourselves for more assaults.

Hezbollah and Iran, however, have not cowered their behavior, nor will they as long as Assad needs their help. Instead, both have doubled down on their support for the Syrian government, guided by the firm belief that Assad’s opponents are a direct and serious threat to Lebanon’s stability and the lives of Shia throughout the Middle East. Every suicide attack in Lebanon carried out by Sunni jihadists only confirms their deeply held belief that jumping into the Syrian war on behalf of Assad was the right thing to do.

Hezbollah’ leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke out to a large crowd only a few days ago reaffirming his movement’s absolute support for the Assad regime. Sunni militancy “is a danger that threatens all Lebanese,” he said. “This blood and wounds and patience and perseverance are part of the battle.” And it is a battle that Hezbollah intends to win.

Jihadist groups pushing for Assad’s ouster will not take Nasrallah’s words kindly and are likely to conclude that they need to step up their campaign in Lebanon to change his mind. This strategy, however, may ultimately prove to be shortsighted, for Hezbollah is simply too invested in Assad’s survival to back down in the face of their enemies.

As long as Hezbollah remains intimately involved in Syria’s war, those fighting with the Syrian opposition will do everything in their power to try to break the link that has held Bashar al-Assad afloat. The Lebanese government may have declared a policy of noninterference in Syria’s war but it is clear that the country has been sucked into its neighbor’s conflict.