Lebanese soldiers and militiamen stood among rubble and charred vehicles outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut this morning, surveying the damage wrought by two explosions that killed at least 23, including Iran's cultural attaché to Lebanon, and injured dozens more.
The explosions tore the balconies off nearby buildings and shattered windows blocks away. While hardly the first spillover from Syria's war, it was the first attack against an Iranian target.
“This attack raised the bar and made the Iranians a direct target,” said Lebanese political analyst Kamel Wazne. “Once you destroy these barriers, you open the gate for a very complicated game in the Middle East.”
Iran has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with weapons, money, and political clout since the uprising in Syria started in March 2011.
Today's bombing is the latest in a string of attacks against Shiite targets in Beirut – there were two attacks in the city's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, over the summer, one of which racked up the largest number of casualties since Lebanon's civil war. The Lebanese Shiite militant group, which is also backed by Iran, has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside the regime. Shiites have hit back with their own attacks on Sunni areas.
Last week, as Shiite Muslims marked the holy day of Ashoura, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his movement’s commitment to Mr.
"On this day of Ashoura, I declare our commitment to the resistance with its readiness, its resources, its weapons," he told a crowd of supporters in his south Beirut stronghold. "As long as there is a purpose for our presence there, we will remain [in Syria]."
The first blast went off around 9:30 a.m. local time and was followed by a much larger explosion a few minutes later.
“There was a first explosion. It was small. I thought maybe a tree fell. So I went to the balcony,” said Heba, a young woman asking to use only her first name. “Then I went back to the kitchen and there was a second, larger blast.”
The second blast blew out her windows and ripped through her apartment, pulling down parts of the ceiling, knocking over tables, and covering everything with shards of glass. In the building next door, the blast ripped off the balconies up to the fifth floor.
Across the street, Rabih Istanbuli says he saw bodies falling from the buildings. After the first smaller blast, residents came to their windows and balconies to see what happened, only to be met with a larger second explosion.
“The second bomb was there, at the entrance to the embassy,” said Mr. Istanbuli, pointing to a blackened patch of earth in the middle of the street. “After that there was a lot of shooting. I couldn’t tell who it was. It was chaos. After 15 minutes there was a lot of guys with guns. Civilian guys with guns,” he said.
The Lebanese Army blocked off the streets leading to the embassy. Well-armed members of the Amal movement, which controls the neighborhood, patrolled alongside the police and Army.
A relatively obscure Al Qaeda-linked group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility, citing Iran’s support for the Syrian regime as the motivation. The United States designated the group a terrorist organization in 2012.
"It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes of Lebanon," Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the group's religious guide, wrote on Twitter, according to Reuters. The Twitter account is widely believed to belong to him.
Writing in Arabic, he vowed future operations to drive Iran and Hezbollah out of Syria and to put pressure on Lebanon to release jihadis from prison.
Before that claim, Iran lobbed accusations at Israel. Iran's PressTV reported that Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham called the attack an “'inhumane crime and a spiteful measure' by the Zionist Israeli regime and its mercenaries."
After initial opposition gains in Syria, the regime and its allies have managed to turn the tide in their favor. In recent weeks regime forces and militias that support Assad retook some key transportation routes and laid siege to rebel areas. Some speculate today’s attack was retaliation from the opposition.
“It’s [Assad's] new operations in Syria, in the mountains, and in Qalamoun, that triggered the suicide attack in front of the embassy,” said Mr. Wazne. “The decision was made somewhere else. We need to know exactly who gave the order to carry out the attack.”
Residents said they feel as if they are suffering for someone else’s conflict as Syria’s civil war increasingly creeps across the border into Lebanon.
Jad Kobissi, a man who lives two blocks from the site of today’s blast, worries it’s a harbinger of things to come.
“Syria, everyone, is making their little war over there – you have to see Iran, Arab countries, Russia, America, France. Unfortunately, I think the war is coming here,” said Mr. Kobissi as he watched crews clearing the rubble from the streets of his neighborhood.