Two rockets struck a majority Shiite district of southern Beirut early Sunday, the latest indication of rising tensions in Lebanon generated by the war in neighboring Syria. The attack was the first of its kind in Beirut since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Five people were wounded in the dawn attack which came a day after the leader of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah organization publicly justified the large-scale role his fighters are playing inside Syria to assist the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The rockets smashed into the Shiyah neighborhood where support for Hezbollah runs high. One rocket struck an outdoor car showroom, damaging vehicles and wounding five Syrian workers. The second rocket hit a nearby street, causing some damage but no casualties.
The Lebanese army later discovered two 107mm rocket launchers in a wooded hillside between the villages of Bsaba and Aitit five miles to the south. A third launcher was discovered nearby but the rocket had misfired.
Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut has been bracing for an attack for months. Many residents fear that supporters of the Syrian opposition will mount a car bomb attack in the densely-populated district. Hezbollah men maintain tight security at night, setting up checkpoints and patrolling the streets with bomb-sniffing dogs.
There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday’s rocket attacks although suspicion has fallen on Sunni militants, possibly connected to armed rebel groups seeking to oust Mr. Assad from power.
“The attacks are aimed at creating security tensions and certain retaliations, given the timing of the incident,” said Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister. “We call on all sides to act wisely to prevent those seeking strife to achieve their goals.”
On Saturday evening, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, admitted to the large-scale involvement of his fighters in Syria, saying their presence was necessary to protect Lebanon against Sunni radicals.
“We are now in a totally new phase that began a few weeks ago,” he said in a televised speech marking the 13th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon. “This new phase aims at fortifying the resistance and protecting its backbone. We will assume this responsibility and endure all the sacrifices that come with taking such a stance.”
Hezbollah combatants have been operating in Syria since at least early 2012, mainly in a training capacity teaching Syrian troops and loyalist paramilitaries urban warfare skills. But since late last summer, Hezbollah’s role has become more pronounced and harder to hide amid a rising number of funerals for its fighters killed in Syria. Sheikh Nasrallah said last October that some Hezbollah men were fighting of their own volition to defend a string of villages close to the border with north Lebanon that were inhabited by Lebanese Shiites. Last month, he admitted that Hezbollah combatants were also helping defend a prominent Shiite shrine in southern Damascus.
Recently the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah, has launched a major offensive against the strategic town of Qusayr, five miles north of the Lebanese border and close to the main highway linking Damascus to the coastal port of Tartous. The town has been subjected to heavy artillery bombardments and air raids as Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters have inched their way through the ruined streets against a determined defense.
New crop of 'martyrs'
The fighting in Qusayr has claimed significant combat casualties. Hezbollah has not given a tally, but other sources estimate that between 70 to over 100 members of the Shiite group have died. In the past week, funerals for slain militants have been held across Lebanon in Shiite-populated areas with pictures of the new “martyrs” strung across the streets of their natal villages and towns.
Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has drawn bitter denunciations from the rebel leadership. Ammar al-Wawi, an official in the Free Syrian Army, told Lebanon’s MTV television Sunday that if the Lebanese government failed to stop Hezbollah “there will be repercussions against Beirut, Tripoli and Rafik Hariri International Airport." He claimed that the airport in Beirut “has become a corridor for Iranian planes that are shipping weapons to Syria."
However, another FSA official rejected as “irresponsible’ Mr Wawi’s threats against Lebanon and condemned the rocket attack against southern Beirut.
Syria is a vital ally for Hezbollah and its patron Iran. It represents a conduit for the transfer of weapons into Lebanon and provides Hezbollah with strategic depth.
“Syria is the backbone and supporter of the resistance,” Sheikh Nasrallah said in his speech. “The resistance cannot stand idly by when its backbone is exposed. We would be foolish to do so.”
He justified Hezbollah’s combat role in Syria on the premise that the rebel forces were predominantly composed of “takfiris," Sunni jihadis who treat as apostates anyone who does not share their austere interpretation of Islam. Sheikh Nasrallah added that Israel and the United States were sponsoring the takfiri groups to oust the Assad regime as a precursor to attacking Hezbollah inside Lebanon.
“Since the outset of the unrest, some in the opposition addressed us saying: the regime will fall and we are coming to target you in Lebanon,” he said.
But Hezbollah’s evident role in Syria has drawn strong condemnation from its opponents in Lebanon.
“The resistance has announced its political and military suicide in Qusayr,” said Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in a statement.