The Lebanese have been fearful ever since the civil war erupted next door in Syria that it would spread to their nation and trigger communal fighting within their borders. And with the influx of huge numbers of refugees and occasional clashes in the north between Lebanese sects supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to him, such fears have had plenty to feed on the past few months.
Now, a new development could bring sectarian conflict that much closer to Lebanon and have wider repercussions for the entire Arab region: the likelihood of a confrontation along the border between Lebanon’s Shiite armed movement Hezbollah and Sunni fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist militia that has evolved into the most effective rebel formation fighting to oust Assad.
Al-Nusra, which has launched more than 30 successful bombing attacks against mainly government military targets, often using suicide bombers, has been tagged a terrorist organization by the Obama administration because of its links with al-Qaeda. It has been enjoying growing cachet among Syrian rebels from recent operational accomplishments on the battlefield and has been in the vanguard of many successful full-scale rebel clashes with Assad forces.
In recent weeks, al-Nusra fighters drawn from across the Middle East have been moving into Shiite villages on the Syrian side of the border along a 30-mile stretch in the mountainous al-Nabk area about 50 miles north of Damascus, say Lebanese intelligence sources.
Syrian army units have vacated the villages presumably leaving them to be policed by the pro-Assad Hezbollah, whose heartland is just across the border in the Lebanese part of the Bekaa Valley.
Few in the West may want to shed a tear over a full-scale confrontation between Hezbollah and al-Nusra. “Sure one could say this is the equivalent of the movie Alien vs. Predator and we should be sitting back and munching on a bag of popcorn,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a scholar in Middle Eastern studies and vice president of research at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But we are looking at a fierce war that has left 70,000 people dead and more than a million as refugees and this isn’t going to make things any better; in fact, it will make things worse.”
The prospect of a face-off between Hezbollah and al-Nusra along the border holds grave risks for Lebanon, hazarding the country’s already fragile ethnic and religious balance. For the wider Arab world, turf battles between the two groups would likely aggravate already-high tensions between Shiites and Sunnis that have resulted from the Syrian civil war.
This week, a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda said it was responsible for the massacre in Iraq last week of 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. The soldiers reportedly had crossed the border to seek medical treatment. The jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq, in an Internet post mocked Shiites and Assad’s Alawite Muslim sect.
The massacre prompted Syria’s Grand Mufti, Sheik Ahmad Badr al-Deen Hassoun, to issue a call to arms “against our cousins who have betrayed us.” The sheik also appeared to lash out at Sunni Arab nations for their backing of the mainly Sunni insurgency against Assad. Although a Sunni, the sheik isn’t independent of Assad and expresses what he is told to by the regime.
Hezbollah fighters and al-Nusra rebels have already clashed elsewhere in Syria, in Homs and Aleppo. Hezbollah has publicly acknowledged recently that it has increased its support of Assad, arguing that its militiamen have been fighting in Aleppo as a forward defensive move to prevent them having to fight al-Nusra on Lebanese territory.
But some Lebanese believe that will merely tempt al-Nusra to strike Hezbollah closer to home.
Earlier this week Lebanese Christian leader Samir Geage, a veteran of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, warned of the destabilizing potential of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. He told a local Lebanese newspaper: “Hezbollah's meddling in Syria will attract the rebel al-Nusra Front to move the clashes into Lebanon.” With al-Nusra fighters now deploying in the al-Nabk area that scenario is closer to being realized.
Says Schanzer: “If Hezbollah is forced to retreat into the Bekaa Valley, will al-Nusra and other Syrian rebel factions pursue them into Lebanon? It is a key question and was always the risk Hezbollah courted by fighting for Assad.”
He believes al-Nusra’s deployment in al-Nabk endangers Assad’s final escape route—a redoubt in traditional Alawite territory to the north and east of Lebanon. “You will have two of the more vicious factions in this war facing off over an increasingly critical area, sacred ground, for the Assad regime. If this does take place we could be looking at the biggest battles we have seen in this already brutal war.”
Ironically, Hezbollah and its backer Iran have not always had an antagonistic relationship with al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who was extradited to New York last week to face terrorism charges, lived for several years in Iran.
But for both Hezbollah and Iran, the Assad regime is too important to fail. A point emphasized in February by Mehdi Taeb, the head of a think tank close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the brother of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence chief. At a conference on February 13 he dubbed Syria as Iran’s “35th province,” arguing that it was of paramount strategic importance for Shiite Iran.