In Lebanon, Jihadists Lash Out at Iran and Hezbollah

4 MINS READNov 19, 2013 | 15:33 GMT
In Lebanon, Jihadists Lash Out at Iran and Hezbollah
People gather at the scene of the bombings Nov. 19 in southern Beirut.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

The twin bombings Nov. 19 in Beirut are likely the jihadists' response to heavy Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of the al Assad regime. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in the Levant region, claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings on the Iranian Embassy and ambassador's residence in Beirut. But rather than deter Hezbollah and Iran from reinforcing the Syrian regime, the attack will only strengthen their desire to regain control of Syria's strategic Qalamoun area, which borders Lebanon and overlooks the critical M5 highway.

Iran and Hezbollah's heightened offensive in Syria following the Beirut bombings will strain the ongoing dialogue between the United States and Iran and further divide Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunnis, who are already locked in trying negotiations to form a new government. However, Iran is unlikely to allow such provocations to divert the focus of its negotiations with Washington.

At least 23 people were killed and 146 wounded in the bombings on Iranian diplomatic facilities in Beirut's southern suburbs. The first explosion reportedly occurred when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle detonated his explosives outside the main embassy gate. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, using a Renault Rapid van as its delivery vehicle, was responsible for the second explosion, which was much larger and occurred a few meters from the initial blast. Pictures of the damage do not dispute estimates that at least 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives were used.

Iranian Embassy Attack in Beirut

Iranian Embassy Attack in Beirut

Occurring at approximately 9:42 a.m. local time, around the time when embassy employees would be arriving, the blasts were intended to inflict maximum carnage. In attacks such as this, it is typical for a smaller explosive device to be used to draw in emergency responders before a second, larger device detonates to produce more casualties. Another approach involves the use of a larger explosive device to penetrate the perimeter of the target, enabling a second bomber to get closer to the target. The timing and sequence of this attack does not fit neatly into either of these operational norms — in particular, the second explosion occurred before emergency responders had arrived — but it is possible that one of the bombers panicked and rushed the plan.

The attack marks the third successful jihadist penetration of a Hezbollah enclave in Lebanon in the past five months. (The Iranian Embassy is located in the Bir Hassan neighborhood in Beirut's southern suburbs, a bastion for Hezbollah.) The attacks reveal the degree of fatigue and distraction that Hezbollah has experienced as a result of its efforts to reinforce the Syrian regime across the border. Yet the attack is unlikely to reduce Hezbollah's or Iran's involvement in the Syrian war. Both recognize the unique opportunity to bolster Syrian President Bashar al Assad's position while U.S.-Iranian negotiations are underway and while Sunni rebel factions have only Saudi Arabia as their primary weapons supplier. With Western support to the Sunni rebels on hold, the Iranians, Syrians and Hezbollah hold a clear advantage on the battlefield.

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Emboldened by the attack on the Iranian Embassy, Hezbollah operatives and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will proceed with their much-anticipated Qalamoun offensive. The mountainous Qalamoun area is a 50-kilometer (30-mile) stretch of land bordering the Lebanese Bekaa Valley between Damascus and al-Nabk on the critical Damascus-Homs belt of the M5 highway. Syrian loyalist forces are already making headway in the offensive and have recaptured the strategic town of Qara. Whoever holds the Qalamoun area will be well positioned to control the northern approach to the capital. Hezbollah fighters intend to enter Qalamoun from the Bekaa's central axis before splitting into two groups — one heading south and the other heading north. Notably, Hezbollah is making a conscious effort not to overrun the Sunni-concentrated town of Arsal on the Lebanese side of the border so as to avoid getting dragged down by sectarian clashes at home.

Jihadist attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian interests in Lebanon, as well as the Syrian regime's mounting offensive against Sunni rebels, will maintain the already deep sectarian cleavages in the regional conflict. The polarized environment will make it more difficult for Hezbollah to reach a political accommodation with mainstream Lebanese Sunnis on forming a new government, ensuring further political paralysis in the country. However, the attack is unlikely to disrupt Iran's negotiation with the United States. In fact, Iranian officials have so far blamed Israel for the attack despite signs that it was likely a jihadist operation.

Saudi Arabia has ties with many of the jihadist groups operating in the Levant region, but the claim by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades casts doubt on direct Saudi involvement in this case. The Saudi government views the Abdullah Azzam Brigades as a direct threat and arrested the group's leader, Saleh al-Qarawi, in June 2012. Meanwhile, the brigades have their own sectarian motivations for targeting Iran near the Syrian battlefield, where many of their fighters are now operating. Iran can expect more militant attacks as Sunni rebels, jihadist organizations and Riyadh try to cloud the U.S. negotiations, but Tehran will make an effort to avoid entangling itself in localized sectarian tit-for-tat operations while prioritizing its dialogue with Washington.

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