In mid-January, a violent, but sadly characteristic week-long period of deadly Syria-related security incidents occurred across Lebanon. Early in the morning on Thursday, January 16, a car bomb ripped through the center of the Shia town of Hermel in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, killing six residents and injuring more than forty. The terrorist organization, Jabhat al-Nusra, claimed responsibility, saying it was striking a Hezbollah stronghold in response to what it described as “Hezbollah’s crimes against Sunni women and children in Syria.”
The next day, shelling killed eight residents in the pro-Syrian opposition town of Arsal, five of them children, and injured another fifteen residents. Government sources claimed the shelling came from across the border, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham reportedly claimed responsibility, saying it was attacking a Free Syrian Army stronghold. But the Arsal Municipal Chief and other local residents blamed Hezbollah.
On January 21, the Lebanese Red Cross reported that four people died and more than thirty-five were injured in a car bombing on al-Arid street in Beirut in the Shia neighborhood of Haret Hreik. Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility again. It was the second car bombing on al-Arid street – the first, on January 2, killed four and injured more than seventy-five – and it is the fifth to rock Beirut’s southern suburbs since July.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Tripoli – which also has not been spared the horrors of Syria-related car bombings – at least twelve residents reportedly died and fourteen were injured between January 16 and January 23 from shelling, sniper fire, and shooting in the latest round of violence between Alawite and Sunni neighborhoods. Two Lebanese army soldiers were also killed in the fighting.
These numbers are dizzying. At least thirty residents violently killed in the course of one week, and Lebanon is technically not at war.
The Syrian conflict has aggravated sectarian tensions across the country, but most acutely in Tripoli, where intermittent violence between the pro-Syrian government and Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhood and the surrounding pro-Syrian opposition, Sunni neighborhoods, including Bab al-Tabbaneh, has been ongoing since May 2008. Hundreds of both Sunni and Alawite residents have been the victims of this conflict.
But sectarian tensions have also led to more targeted attacks against Alawites outside of Jabal Mohsen, including attacks against Alawite workers commuting to other parts of Lebanon, the burning and destruction of Alawite shops, and attacks against buses – including school buses – transporting Alawite residents. The violence has not only taken lives and caused injuries. It has also hampered access to medical assistance, damaged property, and negatively affected daily life, freedom of movement, and access to education.
The government has security plans for the southern Beirut suburbs and Tripoli, and has made efforts to arrest some fighters and others responsible for violence against residents. But, the government has clearly failed to meet the security challenges posed by the violence spilling over from Syria.
Like many Lebanese, I am left to wonder who will protect us from these horrors, which can only be expected to continue as the war in neighboring Syria rages on. The victims of these bombings, shellings, and shootouts are at once trapped between the fighters waging battle in their communities and a weak state.
What can we expect from state institutions when no government has truly been in charge since the prime minister resigned in early 2013 and when key political parties are heavily involved in Syria? The government is buckling under the responsibility of meeting the needs of over a million Syrian refugees with insufficient international support amid a growing economic crisis. Security forces themselves are seen to be so sectarian they are incapable of being impartial first responders and peacekeepers.
Despite the challenges, more can be done. The police and army need to take further steps to confiscate weapons – mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic weapons – that have been used to kill residents. Law enforcement and the judiciary need to send a clear message that there will be no impunity for these crimes – by arresting, investigating, and prosecuting gunmen, arsonists, and others violently targeting residents. An active government security presence must be maintained in all communities, and local groups must not be allowed to fill security vacuums.
Until these and other security steps are taken, we will be left to wonder when the next bomb will go off and the next round of violence will begin in Lebanon.
Lama Fakih is the Syria and Lebanon Researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @LamaMFakih