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On the edge of the cliff

Friday's mosque bombings may have been a bid by radical Sunni forces to spark an all-out Sunni-Shiite war inside Lebanon

Two explosions occurred on Friday, August 23 in the city of Tripoli, the largest city in the northern part of Lebanon. The targets of the attacks were two major Sunni mosques. As of now, 45 people are reported dead and more that 500 injured. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The city of Tripoli, with a population of some half a million people is predominately Sunni. There is, however, a group of Alawites who reside in one of the city’s neighborhoods – Jabal Al- Muhsen. Over the past few months, as an outcome of the deteriorating situation in Syria, the tension between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli has escalated and has resulted in a series of sporadic outbursts of violent clashes between armed Sunni and Alawite militants.

One of the mosques attacked on Friday was the Al-Taqwah Mosque, the mosque of Sheikh Salem Al-Rafei, a senior leader of the Salafi group in Lebanon and a vocal critic of Hezbollah and Assad.

The blast, which occurred during his Friday sermon, was captured in this video:

Apparently Al-Rafei was not hurt in the attack. Following the attacks on the Mosques Al-Rafei called upon his supporters to conduct self-restraint and to refrain from retaliation. It should also be mentioned that in April 2013 the same mosque was attacked by snipers. Reportedly, it was a failed assassination plot designed to murder Al-Rafei. The identity of the assassins was never revealed.

Who is the factor behind the attacks? The immediate suspect is of course Hezbollah. Over the past few weeks, Al-Dahya, Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut has been attacked by rockets and car bombs. The most recent attack on August 15, 2013 killed twenty-six people and injured hundreds. It is possible then that the attack on the Sunni mosques in Tripoli – a major Sunni stronghold – is a clear message from Hezbollah to the Sunnis that Sunni strongholds are not safe if Shiite strongholds are not safe.

For Sunnis it is an indisputable fact that Hezbollah was responsible for the bombings. Bloggers from Tripoli wonder how it was that the Al-Manar, the Hezbollah affiliated television network, was the only TV Channel to broadcast live from the scene shortly after the blasts, even though they have no studios or permanent crew in Tripoli. In their opinion Al-Manar was tipped off by “factors” who knew about the attacks beforehand, therefore they deduce that the mysterious factor is none other than Hezbollah.

But it is very possible that Hezbollah is not responsible for the attack. Hezbollah is sinking in the war in Syria and has no desire to open another military front inside Lebanon as well. Indeed, over the last months, and in spite of the fact that its symbols of power in Lebanon are being attacked, Hezbollah has conducted a policy of self-restraint hoping to avoid further involvement in the escalating violence in Lebanon. It is no wonder then that Hezbollah rushed to condemn the attacks on the mosques and to express solidarity with the people of Tripoli.

If indeed Hezbollah is not responsible, who is the factor beyond the attack? The suspect is rather unexpected.

It is possible that the attacks on the mosques were conducted by no other than radical Sunni forces, perhaps Al-Qaida or a Global Jihad affiliated group located either in Lebanon or in Syria.

What would the Radical Sunni group’s rationale be for such an attack?
By conducting these attacks the groups hope to spark a Sunni retaliation that will lead to a total Sunni-Shiite war inside Lebanon
A total war in Lebanon would serve two strategic goals of Radical Sunni Militant Islam groups like Al- Qaida and Global Jihad groups.
First, it would force Hezbollah to divert and split its military capacity, thus weakening Hezbollah’s ability to fight in Syria. As a result, the downfall of Assad in Syria would come faster and be inevitable.

Second, sparking a war inside Lebanon would mean total chaos – and chaos is the best friend of Militant Islamic groups. Taking advantage of the chaos, Al-Qaida, Global Jihad and other Militant Islamic groups could expand their influence in Lebanon. As of now, Militant Islamic groups already have an influence – even some kind of control – over the geographic area stretching from the western part of Iraq and stretching into Syria. A war in Lebanon would give these groups the opportunity to extend that strip into Lebanon and thus gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. Such a development would be a substantial achievement for Militant Islamic groups because it would take Militant Islam one step closer towards its goal – the abolishment of sub-political entities (like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, etc.) and the establishment instead of an Islamic Caliphate.

In many of my previous articles I have accurately foreseen the current developments in Lebanon. In my most recent Intelligence Bulletin analyzing the situation in Lebanon Clashes In Sidon published on June 23, 2013 I wrote: “…The continuation and possible escalation of the current clashes in the area of Sidon – together with the increasing incidents of Sunni-Shiite violence in other parts of Lebanon – bring Lebanon one step closer to an inner eruption of massive violence.”

Petrified with the realization of the scenario of a war inside Lebanon, it is very likely that the Lebanese government will put the blame on an “unclear third side” defined vaguely as “terrorists” for the attacks on the mosques.

The identity of the perpetrators may remain “unclear” yet one thing is very clear… Lebanon is right on the edge of the cliff.

About the Author
Avi Melamed is a Strategic Intelligence Analyst and an Expert on the Current Affairs in the Arab and Muslim World and their impact on the Middle East. He is the Founder and CEO of Inside the Middle East: Intelligence Perspectives (ITME), an empowering intelligence analysis praxis transforming students and practitioners into knowledgeable, media literate, critical thinkers. ITME’s goal is to ensure that the next generation of policy influencers will have be equipped with the knowledge, skills and tools to independently and accurately decipher the Middle East and accurately predict the direction of future events. He is a former Israeli Intelligence Official and Senior Official on Arab Affairs. In his public service, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities and communities throughout the region – often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. His newest book, Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth, (also available as an audio book) – a GPS to help you navigate the dramatically changing Middle East, offers a unique insight into the Arab world, challenges widely-accepted perceptions, provides a guide to make sense of the events unfolding in the region, and offers an out of the box idea that could lead to a positive breakthrough in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides intelligence analysis, briefings and tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policy makers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs. An Israeli Jew, fluent in Arabic, English and Hebrew, with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi has his finger on the pulse on the Arab world. He has a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events in the Middle East and their impact on a local and regional level. Through all of his efforts, as an analyst, educator, entrepreneur, and writer, he is a bridge builder, and dedicates himself to enhancing the Arabic, English and Hebrew speaking audience’s comprehensive understanding of the Middle East and of each other. www.avimelamed.com @AviMelamed