Just a week after a bomb killed 27 in a Shiite stronghold of Beirut, two car bombs detonated in front of Sunni mosques in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli on Friday, in a sharp escalation of sectarian violence fueled by the conflict in neighboring Syria. The death toll is so far up to 42, with hundreds wounded — making this attack the deadliest in the city since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, the specter of which is hanging over the political response to the Syria spillover.
The increasing frequency and scale of such sectarian violence does not appear to have shifted the response coming from Lebanese officials, who determinedly maintain that such attacks are coming from “Lebanon’s enemies” — unnamed foreign sources bent at wreaking havoc on Lebanese society. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry made this explicit in his call for citizens to “prevent Lebanon’s enemy from seizing the opportunity” provided by such attacks, also asserting that “the twin blasts are the work of the same murderous hand which left its black fingerprints on the bodies of the [dead] in the [Beirut] bombing.” Caretaker Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn echoed the idea that both attacks were perpetrated by the same culprit, and called on all “Lebanese to show solidarity and not fall into the call for strife and sectarian incitement.”
While the calls for unity are to be expected, by framing this as a concerted campaign against the whole of Lebanon by mysterious external sources (rather than a growing inflammation of the country’s own fractious political situation), the government appears to be hoping to delay the inevitable — a return to civil war era sectarian chaos. Unfortunately, this appears to have become more of a reality in recent days and the head-in-sand approach will not fortify the country. Though, to be fair, with only a weak caretaker government in place, it is difficult to see an alternative to how officials could handle this.
Players with more of a say in recent developments, such as Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, are also echoing the government’s line — and it is no wonder why the “foreign enemy” argument might seem appealing at the moment considering a recent Israeli retaliatory strike on southern Lebanon. The cross-border skirmish with Israel has been seized by more than just Hezbollah — on Friday, the country’s Mufti, its most prominent Sunni religious figure, made a point of highlighting how Israel benefits from discord among Lebanon’s sects: “Muslims should know that the bombing in [Beirut] last week is not a bomb planted by Sunnis and that the explosion in Tripoli was not a Shiite bomb… instead they [were planted] by those seeking to involve Lebanon in regional conflicts.”
Even if Hezbollah were not playing an active role in the Syrian civil war, the deep political divides that have remained in Lebanon past its civil war have left it like a tinderbox, easily susceptible to a new sectarian meltdown. Though it might be external forces that have fanned the flames, it is hard to argue that Lebanon’s shaky political foundations are not the underlying problem, despite its leader’s best exhortations to the contrary.