Analysts: Violence could spin out of control in Lebanon

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Analysts fear violence will spin out of control in Syria’s neighbor Lebanon after deadly bombings struck Sunni and Shiite areas of the country a week apart and killed dozens of people.

The 29-month war in Syria, once the power broker in Lebanon, has already spilled across the border, pitting supporters of the Damascus regime against its opponents.

“It is very likely that there will be more car bombs and other terrorist attacks all over Lebanon. There is nothing to prevent it,” said Fadia Kiwan, head of the political sciences department at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University.

According to her “there is a fifth column operating in the country” whose protagonists are linked to the Syrian conflict.

On Friday twin car bombs struck the mostly Sunni Muslim northern port city of Tripoli, just a week after a blast ripped through a densely populated Shiite area of Beirut.

Kiwan said the Syrian regime could be behind the attacks or they were unleashed by jihadists from al-Nusra Front who are fighting alongside other rebels to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

In any case, she said, “all these attacks will continue”.

Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said: “Lebanon has become a victim of what has in effect become a proxy conflict in Syria.”

“Lebanon is becoming an extension of the Syrian conflict.”

The Tripoli attacks outside Sunni mosques, like the August 15 blast in Rweiss, a stronghold of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, killed civilians.

In all, around 70 people died and hundreds more were wounded.

No one claimed responsibility for the Tripoli attacks -- the bloodiest since Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990. But a previously unknown group, with apparent Sunni affiliations, said it was responsible for the Rweiss bloodshed.

As officials grapple with the consequences of both attacks, they have warned that the aim of the unrest is to revive “sectarian strife” that plagued Lebanon during the civil war, and vowed to pursue their fight against terrorism.

The bombings outside Sunni mosques during Friday’s weekly Muslim prayers is “symbolic”, Lister said, because Tripoli has been riven by strife, often deadly, over the Syria conflict.

“The targeting of the al-Taqwa and al-Salam mosques was hugely symbolic. Both have been clearly involved in the heightened sectarian tensions within the Tripoli theatre,” Lister said.

“However, the sheer scale of the attacks and the fact that they took place during Friday prayers will undoubtedly have a national impact,” he added.

- “The Lebanese are all exposed on the security front” -

Officially Lebanon has kept neutral in the Syria war.

But as the protracted conflict continues, tensions have grown in Lebanon between Sunnis, who mostly support the rebellion against the Syrian regime, and Shiites, who back Assad’s government.

Lebanon’s Sunnis back the rebels politically and financially, while Hezbollah has been fighting for weeks alongside Assad loyalist troops and have helped them make some advances on the ground.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, has been rocked by frequent and often deadly clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect from which Assad hails.

But Kiwan said the latest bombings rang alarm bells for all Lebanese, regardless of their religion or sect.

“All the Lebanese are now in the same boat; they are all exposed on the security front,” she said.

Observers agree that 23 years after the civil war that killed thousands and devastated the country’s infrastructure, no one in Lebanon has any interest in engaging in a new sectarian conflict.

“While I certainly don’t foresee any kind of nationwide explosion in violence, I do think such bombings may become more commonplace, particularly in hotspots like Beirut and Tripoli,” Lister said.

Paul Salem, who heads the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, says it is too soon to say how things will play out in Lebanon.

He said the Tripoli bombings could have been a form of “retaliation” or even “deterrence” for the Beirut blast.

On the other hand, he said, it could be the beginning of a spiral of violence that “will spin out of control”.

Hilal Khashan, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said: “It is clear that there is a desire to trigger a confessional war in Lebanon to divert attention from what is happening in Syria.”

Friday’s car bombings were reminiscent of attacks that shook the country during its civil war, when Lebanese often checked under their cars for explosives before getting in.

That fear was palpable in Tripoli on Saturday as residents buried their dead, including children.

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