If any doubt remained about whether the conflict in Syria would result in a violent proxy battle in Lebanon, it was put to rest by yesterday’s car bombings in Tripoli. Those attacks and another last week in Dahiyeh, a Beirut suburb, killed some 70 people and injured hundreds more.
A previously unknown group, the Aisha Brigades, claimed responsibility for the August 15 attack in Dahiyeh. They made clear that the car bombing, on a busy thoroughfare in a Shia neighborhood linked to Hezbollah, was in retaliation for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad. The Aisha Brigades is thought to be a Syrian rebel group, but little is known about its membership.
Eight days later, on August 23, two car bombs targeting two mosques in Tripoli left more than 40 dead and 400 wounded. The bombings took place during Friday prayers at the al-Taqwa and al-Salam mosques, where prominent imams who support the Syrian opposition were giving sermons. One of the imams, Salem al-Rafei, has encouraged Lebanese Sunnis to fight Hezbollah forces in Syria. No one has claimed responsibility for these bombings and Hezbollah has condemned them.
Armed residents – and there are many in Tripoli – were on the scene just after the bombings, shooting into the air. The refrain here, just as in Dahiyeh after that bombing, was that affected communities would take security into their own hands.
The Lebanese government’s inability to control local armed groups, and the proliferation of weapons in the country, is most dangerous at times like these.
Following these attacks, we can expect to see local groups shoring up security in the most vulnerable areas, as Hezbollah has done in Dahiyeh, for example. So the Lebanese government should deploy security forces to protect the population and prevent new rounds of violence by seizing and confiscating weapons. Arresting and prosecuting those responsible for the bombings is crucial for deterring future attacks.
The Lebanese government shouldn’t sit on the sidelines and allow others to fill the security vacuum in tense neighborhoods across the country. Given Lebanon’s history, the risk of increasingly bloody retaliatory attacks along sectarian lines is just too great.