Internal Strife Turning Lebanon From Syria Front to Own War-zone

Assassination of top Hezbollah operative in Beirut sparked speculations ranging from sectarian violence to Israeli involvement, but one thing is clear: A Syrian cease-fire won't necessarily lead to one in Lebanon.

Residents of the Lebanese city of Baalbek, near the Syrian border, were quick to deny Wednesday that locals were involved in the assassination of a senior Hezbollah operative, gunned down in Beirut a day earlier, further demonstrating Lebanon's increasingly precarious situation.

"There are no terrorist organizations here," declared the mufti Khaled Solh, who condemned Hassan al-Laqis' killing and blamed it on those who would "incite a civil war."

The mufti's statement followed a local group's claiming of responsibility for the assassination. The Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek Brigade ("The Free Sunnis in Baalbek") made its debut about two months ago when it vowed to retaliate against Hezbollah after a series of violent clashes between Hezbollah militants and Sunni citizens took place over the Shi'ite group's control of road-blocks on Baalbek's outskirts.

Posting on its Twitter account, the group also called to "free Lebanon of Hezbollah", praising the perpetrators of the Iranian embassy bombing in Beirut on November 19.

There is no telling whether the group is indeed behind al-Laqis' assassination. On the other hand, one mustn't hurry to blame Israel.

Hezbollah has made itself a slew of enemies inside its home base of Lebanon due to its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Some, such as Salafist Sheikh Ahmed el-Assir of Sidon, act individually and not as part of a political movement. Others carry out district and neighborhood skirmishes, such as those between Tripoli's Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Shi'ite Jabal Mohsen.

Al-Qaida-affiliated organizations are backing the Sunni elements inside Lebanon in attempt to weaken Hezbollah, which is fighting against them in Syria.

These skirmishes have made Lebanon a secondary Syrian battlefield and present Hezbollah with a challenge it has not yet faced. Not only are Lebanese and foreign organizations creating armed enclaves which Hezbollah cannot penetrate, they have also gained access to intelligence enabling them to carry out high-quality attacks right under its nose.

In recent weeks, between 200 and 500 Hezbollah militants have been killed in Syria and part of its emergency warehouses in the country were damaged in bombings attributed to Israel.

Hezbollah, like Syrian President Bashar Assad, is anticipating the Syrian peace talks in Geneva in January, hoping a cease-fire will be reached that will allow it to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, restore its status in Lebanon and take care of local rivals.

The agreement reached between Iran and the West over the prior's nuclear program, and the possibility that Iran might participate in the Geneva summit and influence its outcome, play into Hezbollah's hands: Tehran's new status boosts Assad's chances of remaining in power, at least during the transition period. Turkey's change of direction – Ankara has declared it agrees with Tehran regarding the resolution of the Syrian crisis – and the new American policy, which shies away from military action in Syria, also serve Hezbollah's interests.

This means that Hezbollah can expect that even if the fighting in Syria continues, the country's political structure will continue to support the Iranian-Syrian axis and Hezbollah's own status. At the same time, even if a cease-fire is reached in Syria, the strife inside Lebanon may take on a life of its own, since the internal settling of accounts with Hezbollah has already developed into a sectarian and political struggle. This struggle, conducted via political channels before the Syrian war, went through a dangerous evolution due to the massive armament of Sunni organizations in Lebanon, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis in the country, and the demonstrative actions of al-Qaida militants. These tensions may develop into more violent struggles, which might endanger Lebanon's unity.

AFP