Two rockets hit Hizbullah strongholds in Beirut on Sunday, tearing through an apartment and peppering cars with shrapnel, a day after the Lebanese group’s leader pledged to lift President Bashar Assad to victory in Syria’s civil war.
The strikes illustrated the potential backlash against Hizbullah at home for linking its fate to the survival of the Assad regime. It’s a gambit that also threatens to pull fragile Lebanon deeper into Syria’s bloody conflict.
Despite such risks, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah made it clear there is no turning back. In a speech Saturday, he said Hizbullah will keep fighting alongside Assad’s forces until victory, regardless of the costs.
For Hizbullah, it may well be an existential battle. If Assad falls, Hizbullah’s supply line of Iranian weapons through Syrian territory would dry up and it could become
increasingly isolated in the region.
At the same time, Hizbullah, a Shiite Muslim terrorist group, is raising the sectarian stakes in Lebanon by declaring war on Syria’s rebels, most of them Sunni Muslims.
Lebanon and Syria share the same uneasy mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam. In trying to defeat the rebels, Assad relies on support from minority Shiites, Christians and his fellow Alawites.
The rockets struck early Sunday in south Beirut, an unusual type of attack. In occasional sectarian flare-ups since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, rival groups have mostly fought in the streets.
One rocket hit a car dealership in the Mar Mikhael district, wounding four Syrian workers, badly damaging two cars, and spraying others with shrapnel. Part of the rocket’s main body was embedded in the ground, where a Lebanese soldier measured its diameter.
The second rocket tore through a second-floor apartment in the Chiyah district, about two kilometers (one mile) away. It damaged a living room, but no one was hurt.
Rocket launchers were later found in the woods in a predominantly Christian and Druse area southeast of Beirut, security officials said.
There was no claim of responsibility, but the attack was widely portrayed as retaliation for Nasrallah’s defiant speech and Hizbullah’s participation in a regime offensive in the past week on the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, near Lebanon. The regime has pushed back the rebels in Qusair, but has so far failed to dislodge them.
Hizbullah remains the most powerful group in Lebanon, backed by a military wing armed with tens of thousands of Iranian missiles.
In Cairo, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby condemned Sunday’s rocket attack but also urged Hizbullah to stop interfering in the Syrian civil war.
It is not known how many men Hizbullah has sent to Syria, but the terrorist group
fills a dire need for Assad’s army.
Regime troops have been stretched thin, both because of defections at the start of the conflict and because only the most politically loyal have been sent into battle.
It is unclear how Hizbullah’s new strategy will play out, said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think tank.
“They do see this as something that can redefine the rules of the game region-wide, and they are mustering all the strength they have to win this,” he said of Hizbullah. “But it is doubtful strength alone can achieve this, as the regime itself has shown.”
The Assad government, meanwhile, confirmed Sunday that it has agreed in principle to attend U.N.-sponsored talks with opposition representatives in Geneva next month on ending the civil war.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said during a visit to Iraq that such talks present a “good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria.” He did not say under what terms Assad would dispatch representatives.
The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps persist about its objectives.
Syrian opposition leaders have said they are willing to attend the Geneva talks, but that Assad’s departure from power must top the agenda. Assad said this month that his future won’t be determined by international talks and that he will only step down after elections are held.