It didn’t take long after last week’s car bomb in Al-Roueiss for Hezbollah to lay out its plan of attack. The group immediately announced a retaliatory campaign against Sunni targets under the guise of targeting so-called “takfiris” in Lebanon. Hezbollah-allied media have specified by name the areas where the group is likely to launch operations with the help of its friends in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), as well as sympathetic security services. More ominous, however, were Hezbollah’s accusations against former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Future Movement, and its Sunni base, charging them with inciting, supporting, and harboring terrorist groups supposedly directed by Saudi intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan.
While some Lebanese politicians tried to temper domestic tensions by laying the blame for the bombing on Israel, Hezbollah quickly turned to its domestic rivals and rolled out its talking points right out of the gate. Speaking to Al-Manar TV at the site of the car bombing, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar set the tone: “those who conspired against the resistance during the July  war and who still pave the way to cover terrorist operations to cease these practices… It’s not the resistance that is attracting terrorism, rather it’s those who speak under false headlines.”
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah picked up on this theme in his address. He warned against providing cover to “these groups,” accused domestic rivals of “sectarian incitement,” and demanded more than mere condemnation.
Hezbollah flack and al-Akhbar editor, Ibrahim Amin, clarified Nasrallah’s point in an article entitled, “Hariri provides cover to the killers.” Amin claimed in the article that Hariri was not only “providing a popular foster environment, as well as official or quasi-official support, and funding and arms to these groups,” but also refusing that anyone take action against them.
Hezbollah’s objective is clear. By placing the onus on its adversaries and charging that Hariri was providing cover to "takfiris" and “terrorists,” terms Hezbollah is using to claim a license to kill (possibly with an international, namely U.S., nod), the Party seeks to gain forced acquiescence to operations against sensitive Sunni areas. The Hezbollah chief and his allied media organs were specific in which areas they have in their sights, especially the eastern towns of Majdal Anjar and, most of all, Arsal. As Amin explained in a second piece, “these groups have laid down a plan that benefits from… a political and media cover… [that] launched campaigns against anyone who tried to enter Arsal, or some Palestinian camps, as well as the unprecedented campaign following the incidents in Abra, east of Sidon.”
Arsal has been a set target for Hezbollah and the Assad regime for close to two years now. The reason has to do with its geographic location in the context of the war in Syria. The town’s hinterland represents an important logistical line for the Syrian rebels, extending into the Qalamoun hills on the Syrian side, and the vital corridor stretching between Zabadani and Hermel, west of the main highway linking Damascus to Homs. The location of the town and its outback also disrupts Hezbollah communication lines, and the group has not only highlighted that corridor’s critical importance, but has also signaled that this is where it intends to concentrate its operations. This is partly why Hezbollah sought to isolate Arsal prior to launching its full-on offensive in Qusayr this past spring. Little wonder, then, that al-Akhbar has dubbed Arsal and the Qalamoun hills “the den of terrorism.”
Predictably, the LAF Directorate of Intelligence (DI), which is friendly to Hezbollah, is taking the lead in investigating the various attacks on Hezbollah strongholds, and it is doing so in close coordination with Hezbollah’s security apparatus, as noted by both Nasrallah and Amin. In a concerted effort involving the Hezbollah-allied acting defense minister and the DI and friendly media organs, the group is now setting up a list of targets, with Arsal topping the list as the immediate objective, and with warnings to other potential targets too.
The publicized coordination with the DI and the charge that Hariri was covering terrorists and preventing the LAF from performing its duty were meant to politically corner the former prime minister and force him to acquiesce to the subjugation of Arsal by proxy. The coordination between Hezbollah and the LAF further institutionalizes a troubling phenomenon, the worst manifestation of which was in the Abra operation. However, Hezbollah has been clear in its threats: either Hariri and the Sunnis keep their mouth shut and allow the LAF to raid Arsal, or, if the state is incapable, then Hezbollah will take matters into its own hands, and everyone, as Amin put it, can go and “lay tiles on the sea floor.”
And here’s where Hezbollah’s threats become even more ominous. Besides accusing Prince Bandar bin Sultan of being behind these bombings, and aside from claiming that Hariri and the Sunnis were providing a “foster environment” to terrorists, Nasrallah also hinted that such bombings might easily spread beyond Shiite areas – conjuring up the exchange of car bombs between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis. He followed that thinly-veiled threat with a more explicit one: “if these bombings continue, Lebanon would be on the brink of the abyss.”
The message Hezbollah is sending by linking Prince Bandar, Hariri, and the Sunni “foster environment” to the bombing in Al-Roueiss is clear. As my NOW Arabic colleague, Elie Fawaz, explained it: “The Sunnis in Lebanon will be held hostage until the bombings in Dahiyeh stop.” The implicit threat that car bombs might hit non-Shiite areas aims to establish, in Fawaz’s words, a “balance of terrorism” equation.
Nasrallah proceeded to declare that Hezbollah’s operations in Syria will continue, even if it means all of his fighters, including him, go into battle. As one commentator noted, this declaration was also a threat "primarily directed at the Lebanese."
The Party of God is signaling that it is willing to go all the way, not just in Syria, but also in Lebanon. Its message after Al-Roueiss is that it will continue the war in Syria, and will move to secure areas straddling the eastern border. And if the bombings in Shiite towns and neighborhoods don’t stop, and Hezbollah and its allies in the LAF and security apparatuses are not given control over key Sunni areas, Lebanon’s Sunnis will pay the price.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.