BEIRUT — Lebanese military intelligence officers arrested a Syrian man Thursday and accused him of participating in a roadside bombing July 9 that targeted a convoy of the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah as it traveled near the Syrian border, Lebanon’s government-owned National News Agency reported.
The man was the second Syrian to be charged in the assault, one of a string of attacks that many here suspect were retaliation by Syrian rebels for Hezbollah’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Neither suspect has been identified, but the arrests suggest that Lebanese authorities are closing in on a mysterious group that’s claimed responsibility for the attacks and may be able to link the group to larger Syrian rebel organizations.
While the man arrested Thursday has been accused publicly only of the July 9 attack, the other suspect has been tied to several, all of which were claimed by an outfit that identifies itself as Liwa 313. Analysts think that Liwa 313 was founded by the Supreme Military Council, the rebel umbrella group through which the United States has pledged to provide military assistance to anti-Assad forces. But analysts are divided about whether the group takes direction from the military council or is affiliated now with other, more radical groups, such as the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
Spokesmen for the Supreme Military Council have denied any knowledge of the attacks in Lebanon, including a car bomb in a Beirut supermarket parking lot, also on July 9, that killed no one but injured scores of civilians. The area where the bomb was detonated, in Beirut’s southern suburbs, is home to Hezbollah offices and military command centers and is rich with Hezbollah supporters.
Lebanese intelligence officials – none of whom may comment for the record on such matters – also have linked Liwa 313 to a campaign of rocket fire that targeted pro-Hezbollah Shiite villages near the city of Hermel in the Bekaa Valley, along the border with Syria, earlier this year.
According to numerous rebels and analysts, none of whom would agree to speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the subject, Liwa 313 was formed last November to conduct “special operations.” The group has its roots around the city of Homs, which is currently under siege by the Syrian government, and its first missions were undertaken in coordination with the Farouq Battalions, one of the largest rebel groups in Syria that are allied with the Supreme Military Council.
However, Liwa 313 since appears to have expanded its cooperation with Islamist rebel factions including the Nusra Front, which the United States has declared a terrorist organization. Although several rebel leaders were willing to provide vague information about the group’s position in the supreme council’s military structure, none would comment for the record about its funding or ideology.
Multiple analysts outside Syria said the group appeared to have access to high-quality equipment, making it likely that it’s receiving money from outside the country.
“They were formed for missions that the Free Syrian Army didn’t want to be seen as a part of, like a special forces,” said one rebel commander based outside Homs, using “Free Syrian Army” to designate units affiliated with the Supreme Military Council. Liwa 313 was funded at one time by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and by Qatar, the commander said, adding that that may no longer be the case after Qatar changed leadership last month.
“The group has proven an intriguing one to follow,” said Charles Lister of IHS Jane’s, a prominent defense analysis group. “It doesn’t appear particularly conservative in terms of its religious underpinnings, but its targeting of Shia villages with Grad rockets and mortars in the Bekaa have been loaded with sectarian rhetoric.”
“What is clear is that Liwa 313 is well armed and well supplied,” he added. “Most of its forces wear new-looking desert camouflage and Kevlar vests. Their vehicles are often in visibly good condition, and they’ve presented themselves armed with modern, well-maintained and new-looking small arms.”
Elizabeth O’Bagy, of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, who’s done extensive field research on the Syrian rebels, confirmed the basic genesis of Liwa 313 but suggested that it might now be closer to ideological hard-liners than it was at its founding.
“Since the bombing in Beirut, I’ve heard a lot about their name and its connections to jihadist” groups, she said by email. “But from what I can tell, they originally identified with the FSA. Since then, they have worked with Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat al Nusra.”
Ahrar al Sham is an Islamist group that often works closely with Nusra, but it hasn’t been linked to al Qaida. Jabhat al Nusra is the Nusra Front’s name in Arabic.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.