Bombers hit Iran's Beirut embassy amid fears of widening Syrian war

The suicide bombers who killed at least 22 people at the Beirut embassy were almost certainly Sunni jihadis seeking revenge for Iran's support for the Assad regime in Syria's civil war.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Lebanese army soldiers, members of the Red Cross, and forensic inspectors examine the site of explosions near the Iranian embassy complex (r.) in Beirut on Tuesday, November 19, 2013.

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Twin explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut today killed at least 20 people, including an Iranian official, in what some observers are calling a clear sign of deepening sectarian divisions across the region, motivated by the civil war in Syria.

Today, a “chaotic scene” overwhelmed the southern Jnah district where the Iranian embassy is located after two suicide bombers – one on foot, one in a car – detonated their explosives, reports The Los Angeles Times. TV images showed dark smoke, several fires, and blazing cars. At least 100 people were injured, and the Iranian ambassador to Beirut confirmed the death of Iranian cultural attache Ebrahim Ansari, who had been in his post for only a month, reports the BBC.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack in a neighborhood known as a Hezbollah stronghold. The BBC reports that the Lebanese Sunni jihadi group the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility. The station also reports the perpetrators were sending a “clear message.”

The area has been hit by a handful of attacks in recent months, and Lebanon as a whole has recently witnessed “cross-border rocket attacks by Syrian rebels into Shiite areas, deadly car bomb attacks against Sunni and Shiite targets, sectarian clashes, and several roadside bomb attacks against suspected Hezbollah vehicles,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.

“The aim of the blast is to stir up the situation in Lebanon and use the Lebanese arena to convey messages,” Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati told state news agency NNA.

Iran and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s largest political group, are major backers of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Just last week, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that the group would continue to send its militiamen to Syria to fight alongside government forces. The announcement drew condemnation from anti-Assad groups in both Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanese officials, keen to avoid their nation being drawn into Syria’s civil war, have declared a policy of neutrality in the Syrian war. Many in Lebanon fear the Syrian conflict could destabilize Lebanon’s fragile, multi-sectarian democracy, still brittle following Lebanon’s own, 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

Today's attacks took place in the context of the Syrian government aggressively pushing back against rebel fighters on three fronts, including one in the region of Qalamoun along the Lebanese border, reports The New York Times.

There have long been fears that if fighting in Syria continues, it will drag Lebanon into chaos. Hezbollah’s involvement in supporting the Syrian government is countered by the involvement of Sunni Lebanese fighting in Syria on behalf of the rebels. In addition, Lebanon, a country of about 4 million people, is now host to upwards of 1 million Syrian refugees.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote a series on the regional stakes of Syria’s war, and noted that if there is one out and out “winner” there, it could critically affect Lebanon’s stability.

It is difficult to envisage an ideal outcome for Lebanon if one side or the other triumphs in Syria. If the Assad regime manages to cling to power and reduce the threat posed by the rebels, Hezbollah will remain strong in Lebanon and the cross-regional alliance between the Shiite group and its backers in Damascus and Tehran will endure.

Such a scenario will deepen Sunni grievances in Lebanon and leave unresolved the continuing domestic debate over Hezbollah's status.

If the Assad regime falls and is replaced by a Sunni regime that moves closer to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf, Hezbollah will be isolated from Iran and will feel dangerously vulnerable. Any move by a newly emboldened Sunni community in Lebanon against a Hezbollah that still would be determined to retain its arms could exacerbate an already precarious security climate.

Perhaps the best scenario for Lebanon is a negotiated solution in Syria which compels rival actors to make compromises.

But despite attacks and bombings on Lebanese soil, the Monitor's Nicholas Blanford writes that Syria still isn’t tipping Lebanon toward its own civil war.

…Lebanese analysts say such assertions [of civil war] are overly alarmist and do not take into account the important distinction between periodic civil violence and civil war, similar to the intensity of conflict experienced by Syria today and Lebanon between 1975 and 1990.

“Civil war in a country like Lebanon entails a large-scale political, financial, and military mobilization of all the major communities with the goal of reshaping power politics in a way that is definitive and difficult to reverse,” says Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “While civil war in the traditional sense is not likely, there is a far higher likelihood – if not certainty – that Lebanon will experience a protracted cycle of violence, especially if the Syria conflict goes on unresolved.”

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