Beirut, Lebanon – In just one week last month, two explosions in Lebanon’s capital killed 12 people and wounded more than 100 more. One car bomb targeting Lebanon’s Western-backed political bloc went off on December 27 in Beirut’s downtown area, killing a former minister, Mohammad Chatah, and six others. Days later, another explosion ripped through a neighbourhood in southern Beirut, a stronghold of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, killing five.
Such explosions have become increasingly common in Lebanon in recent months. In August, a car bomb in Dahiyeh, a predominately Shia area in southern Beirut, killed at least 18 people. In the northern city of Tripoli, two Sunni Muslim mosques were targeted, leaving at least 27 people dead. In November, 29 people were killed in a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut.
“The impact of the Syrian war is very real in the Sunni-Shia civil divide and has come to hit Lebanon – whether in Dahiyeh or Tripoli, and recently with the assassination of Mohammad Chatah,” said Firas Maksad, a political analyst and managing director of Global Policy Advisors. “Most of us are surprised Lebanon has held up the way it has.”
It is as if Beirut’s Green Line – which once divided the city’s Muslims and Christian factions during Lebanon’s bloody civil war from 1975-1990 – has been reborn in a different form, this time splitting Lebanese factions aligned with the Middle East’s biggest rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
These waves of attacks represent to me a very clear attempt to disable the March 14 political bloc.
“I’m not surprised by my father’s death,” said Omar Chatah, the son of Mohammad Chatah, who was also an advisor to the Saudi-backed leader Saad Hariri. “My father’s assassination falls within the string of assassinations that began in 2004 with the attempted assassination of Marwan Hamade,” Chatah told Al Jazeera, adding that his family had received death threats since 2005. “These waves of attacks represent to me a very clear attempt to disable the March 14 political bloc.”
Headed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, members of the March 14 bloc have strong alliances with the United States and Saudi Arabia.
By contrast, the March 8 Alliance is backed by Iran and Syria, and is led by Hezbollah. The Shia group’s ongoing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is currently the primary point of contention between the two blocs.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has sent his group’s fighters to Syria to aid Assad. Meanwhile, March 14 has demanded Hezbollah cease its assistance to the Syrian government, saying they hope to prevent Lebanon from being further affected by the Syrian civil war.
In an open letter to the Iranian president penned by Mohammad Chatah and released by his son after his death, the former finance minister asked President Rouhani to help end Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. “Combating this scourge and protecting Lebanon from worse spillovers cannot succeed while a major Lebanese party is participating directly in the Syrian conflict,” Chatah wrote. “Regrettably, this is happening with the support of, and in coordination with, the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Maksad suggested that Chatah’s views on Iran could have been a reason for his targeting.
Military aid package
The split between Lebanon’s two biggest blocs became wider when Saudi Arabia recently announced a pledge of $3bn in French military equipment to the Lebanese army. While many, including President Michel Sleiman, hailed the unprecedented donations, others saw the announcement as merely another chess move in a regional tug-of-war between Sunni and Shia powers.
“Of course in principle we cannot but be positive about any contribution to the Lebanese army,” said Alain Aoun, an MP with the Change and Reform bloc, which is allied with Hezbollah and falls under the March 8 political umbrella. “But we are still waiting to understand more about the details of this aid and the conditions behind it,” Aoun said.
|Deadly explosion hits Lebanese capital|
“It’s like a competition on gaining influence in Lebanon, and this is definitely an important measure that has been taken by the Saudis,” Aoun added. “What’s important is to keep the army away from this axis battle and not to drag it into taking any sides.”
And yet with a donation as large as $3bn, preconditions are already in question. According to an article published by Beirut-based Al Akhbar, “one condition for this grant is forming a cabinet in Lebanon, from which Hezbollah would be excluded”.
Lebanon has been without a government since March 2013 and elections are not expected to take place until November 2014 – so any agreement on forming a national unity government at this point seems highly unlikely.
“The problem is that we are in a country… where anyone can kill, can do bombings. All secret services of the world are present here,” Aoun said. “Anyone can do anything in order to influence the course of things in the country. Usually these bombings and killings have a goal and what is in common with all of them is that they try to exploit the division of Lebanese, try to push them into confrontation, push them into civil war, push them into confessional friction.”
Given the lack of a government and with the spate of sectarian attacks showing no sign of abating, the country’s divisions may grow still deeper in the coming year.