Tony Badran

Containing the security threat

Nasrallah’s claim that the threat of more car bombs “has largely receded” is basically correct

Lebanese forensic experts and security forces inspect a blast site in Hermel in February.

In an interview this week, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah offered a confident reading of the situation in Syria and of his party’s involvement there. Of note was Nasrallah’s optimism about domestic security as he declared that the danger of car bomb attacks against Shiite-majority areas “has largely receded,” even if the threat “has not been totally eliminated.” Nasrallah’s interview was full of the usual exaggerations aimed at demoralizing his adversaries and uplifting his supporters. But on this point, he's basically right.


Much of the commentary on Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war posits that the group’s continued involvement will lead to increased blowback against it in Lebanon. The flames of the spillover from Syria, the argument goes, will engulf not only Hezbollah but also Lebanon as a whole. There is no doubt that Lebanon has paid, and will continue to pay, dearly for the militia’s entanglement in Syria. The country is saddled with over a million Syrian refugees, and thousands more continue to stream across the border as the Assad regime and Hezbollah clear out towns across Lebanon’s eastern border. But Hezbollah has taken advantage of a number of factors to contain the threat to itself and its support base in Lebanon. Among the most important factors is US policy.


To get a handle on the domestic security situation, Hezbollah long identified key hotspots that it needed to neutralize. First, Hezbollah needed to clear the Syrian side of the border, especially in the Qalamoun region. Hezbollah led the military assault there, and after the fall of the rebel-held town of Yabroud last month, the objective of securing the Qalamoun stretch is near complete.


Hezbollah also had to seal up certain towns on the Lebanese side of the border, like Arsal in the Beqaa and the northern region of Akkar, which had served as logistical support hubs for Syrian rebels. But recognizing the many constraints it faced in pacifying these majority-Sunni areas, Hezbollah turned to its allies in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to do the job. The LAF’s “security plan” received comprehensive political cover from the recently-formed coalition government and former Prime Minister MP Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. The latter’s embrace of the LAF’s security plan was an important factor in Hezbollah’s domestic strategy, affording it Sunni political cover for the crackdown on these sensitive Sunni areas. Indeed, Arsal has been effectively isolated, and every day there are news reports of LAF raids there and arrests of Syrians, including what are claimed to be bombmakers.


With Qalamoun and Arsal neutralized, the party saw that the last main threat was in the Palestinian camps. Hezbollah had earlier on identified the camps, especially Ain al-Helweh, as a primary security risk, as it hosted small Salafist factions that were attacking the Shiite group and its areas. In this case, Hezbollah benefitted from a number of factors that worked to its advantage. First, none of the major Palestinian factions wanted the camps to be involved in the fight with Hezbollah. The battle with Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir at the doorstep of Ain al-Helweh drove the point home for the factions, who remember well the 2007 decimation of the Nahr al-Bared camp by the LAF. Upping the pressure, Hezbollah directly pointed the finger at Hamas over the role of one Ahmad Taha, whom Hezbollah said was involved in a rocket attack on Dahiyeh last May. Taha’s brother was a Hamas official, and Hezbollah and the LAF Directorate of Intelligence put tremendous pressure on Hamas to hand him over, but more generally, to clamp down on the smaller groups operating in the camps or face the consequences. As a result, Hezbollah reached an understanding with the Palestinian factions, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to bring the situation of the camps under control. Hamas had every incentive to cooperate, especially as it seeks to repair its ties with Iran.


But perhaps the most important factor was the indirect help Hezbollah received from an unlikely source: Washington. For one, the Obama administration reportedly shared information with the Hezbollah-aligned LAF Directorate of Intelligence on two top figures from the Ain al-Helweh Salafist scene, Naim Abbas and Majed Majed of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. But more broadly, the US, which has declared combating Sunni extremists to be its top priority, has given its full support to the LAF’s crackdown on the Sunni hotspots (though, naturally, not against Hezbollah). This unambiguous US backing has signaled to regional and local players alike the direction of American policy. It gave US legitimacy to the LAF leadership, glossing over its alignment with Hezbollah, and left everyone with little choice but to get in line behind it.


The combined result of all these factors is that Hezbollah has managed to significantly reduce the threat to its security on the domestic level, at least for now. Needless to say, Hezbollah’s continued losses on the battlefield in Syria are a different matter. Those are set to continue. And the economic and social toll on Lebanon from the Syrian war is likewise unchanged.


To be sure, a car bomb might still go off here or there, but Nasrallah’s claim is not baseless. And for that, he has US policy to thank. In Lebanon, the convergence of Iranian interests with those of the Obama administration has helped relieve much of the pressure on Hezbollah. It has also led to a de facto partnership, behind the cover of the LAF, in stabilizing the security situation in Lebanon, to Hezbollah’s advantage.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Car bombs, like the blast site pictured above in Hermel, have plagued Shiite areas of late. (AFP photo)

“Hezbollah has taken advantage of a number of factors to contain the threat to itself and its support base in Lebanon.”

  • jrocks

    as usual, excellent analysis

    April 12, 2014