Alex Rowell

Hezbollah’s next steps unclear as bomb revives fears in Dahiyeh

Iraq situation seen as potential factor in attack that reveals limits of Hezbollah’s and security forces’ power

Lebanese security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack targeting a police checkpoint in Dahr al-Baydar, 35km east of Beirut

BIR AL-ABED, Lebanon: NOW was queuing at a Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance to Beirut’s southern suburbs when the news broke over the radio Friday morning. A suicide bombing had struck a police checkpoint in Dahr al-Baydar, some 35km away on the road to Damascus, putting an end to a 12-week lull in a series of such deadly attacks to have hit Lebanon since the previous summer. Security forces would begin immediately sealing roads across the country, the radio presenter then said, in light of “information” that a number of other explosives-rigged cars were presently dispersed and ready to blow in “several neighborhoods.”


It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that once inside “Dahiyeh,” as the southern suburbs are collectively known, NOW found the streets emptying quickly as residents made their way indoors. While some of the young men still loitering on the sidewalks in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood put on brave faces, telling NOW the suicide bomb was “nothing,” others admitted to renewed fears that the attacks would once again strike in the heart of Dahiyeh: of 21 vehicle explosions in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, six have been in Dahiyeh, two in Bir al-Abed itself.


“How’s the situation? Look, here’s how the situation is,” said a jeweler who would only identify himself as Hassan, pointing at live footage of the destruction in Dahr al-Baydar on the television inside his store. “The world powers, America and Russia, are pulling strings” – he made a puppet master gesture – “and we civilians are paying the price.”


“Certainly, the fear is back,” said Hassan’s assistant, who declined to give his name. Even before Friday’s bombing, he told NOW, persistent rumors of attacks – such as an alleged plot to target hospitals in Dahiyeh earlier in the week – had kept many residents’ nerves on edge. “Look at all the shops on this street, they’re offering 50% discounts but still they’re empty, because customers are too scared to come here.”


That alleged hospital plot had reportedly sparked one of the largest deployments of Hezbollah militiamen onto Dahiyeh’s streets in months. Now, after Friday’s attack, residents told NOW they expected further security measures to be taken by the party in the area. NOW saw gunmen wearing the party’s signature black t-shirts standing guard outside several mosques, but beyond that no additional measures were immediately evident.


Indeed, analysts told NOW they did not expect the party to do significantly more than it already is doing – namely, securing Dahiyeh, coordinating with the Lebanese army in attempts to neutralize Al-Qaeda-linked groups both within the country and on the border, and continuing its military intervention in the Syrian war, which the party controversially argues is of benefit to Lebanon’s stability.


“There won’t be much of a new reaction from Hezbollah,” said Ali al-Amin, an analyst and Dahiyeh resident. “Except that, after [the takeover of significant Iraqi territory by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadists,] the Iraqi Shiite groups fighting alongside Hezbollah will move back to Iraq, and new Hezbollah units will be called to Syria to replace them.” This is consistent with what NOW’s South Lebanon correspondent first reported last week.


Amin added the party will seek to capitalize on the bombing, and the heightened fears it has generated, to further reinforce its retrospective justifications for intervening in Syria. In his most recent remarks, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said “ISIS would be in Beirut now” were it not for Hezbollah’s military offensive.


Other observers believe Friday’s attack signals a new danger deriving from the Iraq situation, suggesting events may be moving beyond Hezbollah’s ability to control them.


“Of course, there will be heightened security,” said Qassem Kassir, another analyst residing in Dahiyeh. “But it’s no longer just about Hezbollah. Today’s explosion didn’t target Hezbollah: it targeted the Internal Security Forces. The [alleged threat against Beirut’s UNESCO building] wasn’t targeting Hezbollah, it was targeting [Amal Movement leader] Nabih Berri. It’s no longer just Hezbollah or the Shiite community that’s at risk. Now everyone is.”


In Kassir’s view, the bomb was intended as a message from ISIS and its affiliates that events in Iraq will have an impact across the entire region.


“It’s as if, after what happened in Iraq, groups everywhere linked to ISIS felt they should do something,” he told NOW.


“Iraq portends more to come, in Dahiyeh and outside Dahiyeh. They will target everyone.”


Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Friday’s suicide bombing marks an end to a 12-week lull in such attacks in Lebanon. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

“It’s no longer just Hezbollah or the Shiite community that’s at risk. Now everyone is.”