The Syrian civil war has escalated significantly in recent days. As the Syrian regime forces have begun a campaign to take back the strategic city of Qusayr, Sunni jihadists, among them the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in Iraq, have begun operations against Shi’ites in Lebanon and Iraq. These terrorist activities could spark protracted civil wars in both Lebanon and Iraq along sectarian lines.
Qusayr is an important Syrian town that lies between the capital, Damascus, and Homs, the strategic city that links the capital to the regime’s traditional heartland on the coast. Since the rebels have held Qusayr for a considerable time, the regime has been unable to maintain direct lines between its power bases. Thus the regime has begun to besiege the city with a full offensive that is openly supported by Hezbollah troops. “The Syrian strategy with regard to Qusayr is vividly reminiscent of the Russian strategy in Grozny some years ago. Basically, the idea is to surround the town/city, cut off all means of civilian ingress and egress, kill large numbers of civilians by remote means, and wait to storm the city after weakness and panic have made resistance futile.” The regime forces, which are heavily supported by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have begun in the past several days to split the rebel forces in half, although rebel reinforcements have very recently opened up the northern rebel section (see maps below).
Hezbollah’s public, rather than covert, complicity in the campaign has caused rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, to declare operations against Hezbollah:
If Hizballah is not deterred from killing our mujahideen brethren in Syria, and if its members do not withdraw from the Syrian areas of Al-Qusayr in three days, we will harshly respond in the different Lebanese territories, particularly in the border areas, Al-Biqa, and Beirut’s Southern Suburb, where the rejectionist members of Hizballah are spreading. We will target markets, schools, public institutions, and parks.
After this declaration, and declarations by other rebel groups, rockets have hit Hezbollah areas in the Beqaa Valley and in Southern Beirut as promised. Jihadist activities in coming weeks could spike as “there are plenty of Lebanese jihadist and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups that had a presence in Lebanon before the Syrian conflict and can now be mobilized to target Hezbollah. Organizations like Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham or Osbat al-Ansar have had bases in Lebanon for years.”
Lebanon is also seeing incidents among its own citizens. In the northern city of Tripoli, the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Shia neighborhood across the street, Jabal Mohsen, have been engaging in back-and-forth fighting, as one resident relates:
Schools, mosques, and religious centers where Sunni scholars teach have mushroomed around Tripoli. Militant groups use these centers to recruit and… they pay recruits decent money through obscure charities… from Qatar. They are donating money, paying salaries, and funding religious schools and radio stations that lean towards Salafism.
This uptick in violence in Tripoli can partially be traced to former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati who resigned from the Hezbollah-backed government in March. Miqati is using the situation to build his political reputation by financially supporting jihadists in Bab al-Tabbaneh. “Miqati supports Islamist groups with the intention to outbid his opponents and to undermine the popularity of his political rivals… Miqati conveniently frightens the international community and draws on the attention of Arab countries that will ultimately see in him a guarantee for stability.” Although individuals such as Miqati or groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra can gain prominence by inciting violence in Lebanon, the main objective is to relieve rebel forces in Qusayr. With increasing violence in and around Shia population centers, Hezbollah and other Lebanese Shi’ite fighters will be forced to send some relief troops back to Lebanon to defend their homes from Sunni attacks, thus reducing their manpower in Qusayr
Jihadists, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) particularly, are trying to combine the conflict in Syria with the instability in Iraq into a single, unified front by bombing Shia population centers in Iraq and attempting to take over command of Jabhat al-Nusra operating in Syria. Despite the fact that AQI created Jabhat al-Nusra, attempts to bring the Syrian terror network under its umbrella in April failed. The head of al-Qaeda in Iraq rebranded the organization as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” but the head of Jabhat al-Nusra rejected this rebranding and swore “allegiance directly to Ayman al Zawahiri,” the head of al-Qaeda. Thus, rather than controlling operations in Syria, AQI is now working in tandem with their Syrian counterpart. Although the goal of al-Qaeda is to create a single area of operation from Iraq to Lebanon, “They need to gain more ground in Syria to create the momentum for a successful campaign in Iraq. So long as the jihadists remain focused on Syria, they will not be able to devote sufficient attention or resources to sparking widespread sectarian violence in Iraq.”
However, the nature and scope of AQI’s attack bears strong resemblance to tactics used in 2006-2007 when Iraq almost erupted into civil war. AQI in the past two weeks has conducted
two waves of VBIED attacks on May 20 and May 27 [that] demonstrate a concerted effort by AQI to exacerbate sectarian tensions and escalate violence, to fix Iraqi security forces in certain positions and drive them from others, to gain freedom of movement along lines of communication, and to set conditions for deliberate targeting of neighborhoods that were prime locations for sectarian violence in 2006-7.
The Shi’ites are beginning to respond with the mobilization of their own militias, most notably the government-backed Asai’b Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) militia. Responses to AQI attacks in recent days have included false checkpoints and extra-judicial killings against Sunni civilians. It is unclear at this point whether this militia is being directed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or whether they are conducting these attacks independently. If they are acting independently, which suggests al-Maliki and the Iraqi Security Force are losing control of the security situation, then there is a significant probability that “other Iraqi Shi‘a militias… will feel pressured to take part in order to burnish their credentials as protectors of the Iraqi Shi’a, which could escalate quickly to sectarian war, not only in Iraq, but throughout the region.” Increased mobilizations of Shia militias combined with responses from the Sunni community will be a key indicator of the beginning of an Iraqi civil war.
It is probable that the looming conflagration of jihadist activity in Lebanon will not achieve the short-term goal of relieving rebel forces in Qusayr. However, the violence could incite the many factions in Lebanon to return to fighting each other. A protracted Lebanese civil war is the likely result. Furthermore, jihadist activities in Iraq could spark a very severe sectarian conflict, starting in Baghdad. U.S. policy makers should make a concerted effort to bolster allies in the region, particularly Jordan and Turkey, against long-term conflict spillover.