BEIRUT — A Syrian rebel group aligned with al Qaida claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Tuesday that killed four people in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut, just days after Hezbollah was accused of shelling a pro-rebel town in eastern Lebanon.
The Nusra Front claimed the apparent suicide bombing on a street in the predominately Shiite neighborhood of Haret Hreik, just steps from the scene of a similar bombing on Jan. 2 that killed five. Nusra said the attack was revenge for Friday’s rocket attack on the Syrian rebel stronghold of Arsal, Lebanon.
The bombing solidified the growing belief here that Syria’s civil war is now being played out on the streets of Beirut, and that Lebanon was entering a new stage of violence that could surpass anything the country has experienced in recent memory.
Despite its reputation for chaos, earned during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, Lebanon hasn’t seen a major spate of targeted violence since 2008, when both the pace and the nature of the violence were different.
In recent months there have been six bombings aimed at Shiite neighborhoods and three against Sunni targets. Unlike previous violence, the current one has featured as many as four suicide attacks – all against Shiite targets. That’s a break from tradition that alarms some. While Lebanese perfected the car bomb, suicide attacks have been relatively rare – the last confirmed one before the current outbreak dates to 1995.
Lebanese factions are deeply divided over the ongoing civil war in Syria, with Hezbollah and its allies supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community backs the rebels. Both sides have turned parts of the country into military enclaves.
The tensions have escalated into regular fighting in some areas – the northern city of Tripoli goes through cycles of sectarian militia violence, while Hezbollah patrols in the Bekaa Valley have begun regularly clashing with rebels using the border area as a safe haven for operations against Syrian government forces.
Witnesses described Tuesday’s blast as smaller than the six previous bombs that have hit Hezbollah-linked targets since July, with the National News Agency quoting investigators as saying only part of the bomber’s supply of explosives – mortar shells loaded in a car – detonated. But the bomber, who died in the blast, was unable to detonate his suicide vest as Hezbollah security forces surrounded him.
Both this explosion and a similar attack on Jan. 2 took place within Hezbollah’s self-determined security zone, where the party uses its own forces to provide security and limits Lebanese government activity. The area is strictly off limits to foreign journalists without Hezbollah permission.
The notion that Lebanon has entered a period of open sectarian violence with increasingly frequent incidents of retaliation against entire communities deeply worries one of Lebanon’s most experienced political operators.
“Lebanon has entered a period of madness,” said Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. “These (extremist groups) have embarked on terrorism that will grow worse. There will be more attacks and they will be worse.”
Jumblatt, like others around the political spectrum in Beirut, called for Lebanon’s notoriously fractious security services – where certain branches of intelligence, police and military units are often seen as loyal to rival parties – to unify to address the threat of militants from Syria opening a new front inside Lebanon.
Speaking at the site of Tuesday’s explosion, Ali Ammar, a Hezbollah member of Parliament, said the “terrorist attack” in Haret Hreik was a continuation of instability in the region fostered by Israeli influence and the rise of al Qaida-style militants bent on further weakening Lebanon’s unity.
“The Israeli enemy has another face: the (extremist) face that is trying to undermine the resistance and coexistence,” he said.
Within hours of the blast, unknown gunmen widely thought to be from a Sunni militia attacked a Lebanese army patrol in Tripoli, sparking fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian government militias.
The National News Agency also reported that Syrian warplanes entered Lebanese airspace and bombed rebel bases inside Lebanon in the Wadi Khaled region. Syrian rebels often use the mostly unguarded border to move men and supplies into position in Syria, and Syrian troops regularly enter Lebanon to ambush them.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero