Violence, Political Turmoil Eroding Hezbollah Influence in Lebanon

Friday, 19 Jul 2013 04:04 AM

By Joel Himelfarb

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A recent series of bombings, street battles, and political defections in Lebanon could signal of the end of Hezbollah’s relative impunity and lay the groundwork for a new upsurge in instability and violence, writes David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
On July 9, a car bomb detonated in Dahiya, a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut, killing one person and injuring dozens, more, most of them Shiites.

The following day, it was announced that retired Christian Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) was leaving the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition in parliament.

Aoun’s departure brings to an end the seven-year-old alliance that enabled the Shiite militia to dominate Lebanese politics.

If the split persists, it will represent “further isolation of Hezbollah” at a time “when Lebanese Sunnis are becoming increasingly militant,” Schenker says.

All of this comes after nearly two and a half years of war in Syria that has threatened Lebanon’s stability. Upwards of half a million mostly Sunni refugees have poured into Lebanon, skewing the nation’s sectarian demographics against Hezbollah.

Next door, the deaths of tens of thousands of Sunnis at the hands of the nominally Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad have helped raise tensions in Lebanon to the boiling point.

Moreover, local factions with rival combatants in Syria have been clashing in Lebanon as well. Sunnis and Shiites have been killing in the northern border region near Hermel, and Sunni Salafists and Alawite supporters of Assad have been clashing in the streets of Tripoli in northern Lebanon for close to a year, Schenker says.

The most serious outbreak of violence occurred in the southern city of Sidon, where skirmishes erupted into a June 24 battle between Hezbollah militiamen joined by the Lebanese Armed Forces on one side and Sunni Salafist cleric Ahmed Assir on the other. Assir’s forces were routed after a bloody battle in which 18 Lebanese soldiers and 28 other gunmen were killed.

While it remains unclear who was behind the car bomb attack in Dahiya several weeks later, leading suspects include Lebanese Salafists and Syrian rebels.

In recent days, Schenker writes, both Hezbollah and its Sunni opponents have sought to de-escalate the domestic situation by blaming Israel for the July 9 attack.

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