Syrian Civil War Spreads to Lebanon: Beirut Shaken by Iran Embassy Blast, kills 23, wounds 150

Al-Hayat [Life] reports on the targeting by two suicide bombers of the Iranian embassy in south Beirut on Tuesday, which killed 23, including the Iranian cultural attache and embassy guards, and wounded 150.

It was the first attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut since the outbreak of the civil war in neighboring Syria. Since last April, Iran has intervened more and more directly. The commander of the special forces Quds Brigade in Tehran, Qasem Soleimani, at that time encouraged Hizbullah (the Shiite party-militia of Lebanon) to intervene at Qusayr in Syria. This was the first time a Lebanese armed group had crossed over into Syria for military purposes. Hizbullah drove the Sunni rebels back. Soleimani’s officers have also gone to Syria as advisers on special ops to the Baathist military. It is further alleged that the Iranians have encouraged Iraqi Shiites to volunteer to fight in Syria on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, though as far as I can tell most of the Iraqis are mainly defending Shiite shrines in Syria in danger of being demolished by radical iconoclastic Salafi Sunnis.

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Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Ziad Jarrah Battalion, the Lebanese branch of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a terrorist group affiliated to al-Qaeda led by a Saudi and founded in 2009. It demanded that Hizbullah withdraw its fighters from [Syria].

The AAB attacked a Japanese oil tanker at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in 2010. Its Saudi leader, Siraj al-Din Zuraiqat, fought US troops in Iraq. Ziad Jarrah was one of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 in the United States, who piloted United Airlines Flight 93, on which a passenger revolt cause the plane to crash into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The Iranian embassy angrily refused to countenance any change in Iranian policy toward Syria, and blamed Israel for the blast. This allegation is silly and the Iranian diplomats know it, but it has the virtue for them of allowing them to avoid slamming Sunnis, the community from which the actual culprits hail.

This is not the first manifestation in Lebanon of tension over the Syrian civil war. The Shiites and Christians there tend to support the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad, whereas the Sunnis tend to support the rebels. There have been clashes between Sunnis and Alawite Shiites in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli. And the slums of south Beirut have seen at least one earlier bombing that targeted Hizbullah. Likewise, last summer there was a joint military operation by Hizbullah and the Lebanese Army against radical Salafi Sunnis in the southern port city of Sidon, a Sunni bastion. Lebanese Salafis had gone to Syria to fight on the rebel side at Qusayr against Hizbullah, so there have been a few skirmishes with the overtones of civil war already.

On the other hand, Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri expressed outrage at the attack and condemned it roundly. Of course, his brand of Sunnism has nothing in common with the al-Qaeda affiliates.

Far rightwing Christian Samir Geagea condemned Hizbullah for getting Lebanon involved militarily and beyond Lebanon’s borders in a volatile Middle East.

The great Lindsey Hilsum reports:

23 Responses

  1. Dr. Cole this is great analysis. However, I have three comments.
    1. You call Dr. Samir Geagea a “far rightwing” Christian. I have no idea what that means. I have been following Lebanese news closely and he does not seem “far right wing.” MP Aoun sounds more extreme than him- as to the Palestinians and the Syrian refugees, for example.
    2. You write that “as I can tell most of the Iraqis are mainly defending Shiite shrines in Syria in danger of being demolished by radical iconoclastic Salafi Sunnis.” The protection of the shrines is the pretext for intervention in Syria by Iran’s proxies. Who threatened to demolish these sites? Is that the real reason that Iran and its proxies are involved or is it used to excite the Shiite masses against an intervention they would have otherwise opposed? The original pretext was defending the Shiites who live in the border areas then the shrines issue came up. Are there shrines in Qaseer and Halab/Aleppo?

    3. You call Shaykh al Aseer of Saida/Sidon and his supporters Salafists. Shaykh Al Aseer’s political stands are not Salafists- he accepts the consociational model, for example. Also, he does not identify himself as a Salafist. He specifically denied that he is a Salafist as the term is commonly understood. Not that he considers being a Salafist a charge to deny.

    • Re#1:

      Dr. Geaga could be construed as far “right-wing” if you consider that as a member of the Lebanese Forces he was convicted of complicity in four political assassinations, including that of the Sunni Lebanese former prime minister Rashid Karami, and sentenced to life in prison – although he was released after serving 11 years after being granted amnesty from the Lebanese parliament.

      Re#2:

      The Shi’ite shrines in Syria have been a source of prestige for the approximately 200,000 “Twelver” Sh’ites residing in Syria. There have been many Shi’ites from Iraq who have made pilgrimages to visit these Syrian shrines; it is not unreasonable that given the atrocites committed by the al-Nusra Front that Iraqi Shi’ites would be motivated to defend these shrines within Syria.

      Re#3:

      Whether the Sidon combatants were Salafists or not is largely immaterial in the context argued given the fact that the Lebanese government forces have often conducted joint military operations against a common foe. Nasrallah’s son was killed in the 1990s fighting alongside Lebanese Marines as a Hezbollah militiaman defending against an Israeli naval commando invasion.

  2. For the Iranians to blame Israel for the attack, rather than the Sunni Al-Qaeda affiliate that they know launched it, is absurd and simply demonstrates that Iran will go to any lengths to blame Israel for anything that happens. It also demonstrates a complete lack of moral courage that they cannot bring themselves to blame the true culprits because they are afraid it may upset the Sunnis. This response on the part of Iran shows a lack of moral and intellectual courage, and it further undermines Iranian credibility.

    • The same pretty much could be said of Israel… Israel is still trying its best, after more than 20 years, to start a war against Iran, an old friend by the way, under the Shah I believe, promoted there by the U.S.A., after having demoted Mossadegh, the Iranian Minister of Energy who wanted to nationalize Iranian oil, against the wishes of the British and the U.S. Contrary to Israel, Iran has started no war against its neighbours for the last 200 years or more. In the case of Syria, Iran rightfully feels it will be next if Syria is defeated via the West proxies (UK, France, U.S.A., plus Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and some NATO countries, and Israel…

      • What do Israel, Mohommed Mossedegh, the USA, or Iranian oil concessions have to do with this story?

        Is there some law requiring us to find someone else who’s done something wrong whenever Iran is criticized?

        Imagine the opposite – someone writes, in a thread about an American action, a complaint about that American action. Would you feel the need to respond with a brief history of the 1979 hostage taking?

      • The topic of this post is Iran’s false allegation that Israel was responsible for the blast. Your attempt to run interference for Iran by bringing up Israeli misdeeds does nothing to increase Iranian credibility (or your own). One does not clean one’s own laundry by pointing out the dirt in others’

  3. While Saad Hariri’s brand of Sunnism is not theologically Salafi, he and March 14 have been vigorously coding Shi’ism and Shi’as as Iranian agents for many years, and are hand in hand with the Saudis on the matter. Even since yesterday they have been blaming the victim.

  4. Interesting, on a small sample of course, how seemingly “geopolitically” aware people in the streets of wreckage are “over there,” compared to our mall-walking US populace.

    Still, why just call the participants in actual violence “government forces” and “rebels?” The narrator did add a segue to “jihadis,” seems more accurate and indicates how little political boundaries apparently have to do with the root causes of “ALLAHU AKHBAR!!!” idiotic violence and destruction on the “rebel” side, at least. But spend time with the available images of that set of eruptions, like a bad case of shingles, currently being fed and fomented by nominal US and other players, and the commonalities of idiot cruelty and viciousness across the “battlespace” between all the field forces and their “leadership” seem pretty clear. What would you call it, a “focused nihilism?” With a large dose of anomie? And gee whiz, there is apparently joy and FUN! in “martyrdom!” What’s better, becoming a Martyr or Martyring some other dude?

    Good to at least document what’s shaking, with serious and wry and sad shakes of the head, but what’s the combination of new impulses and changed inputs that will direct all that energy into building, instead of demolishing buildings and lives? Does it just run its inevitable course down into the “relationships” and ruined, meaningless urban landscape of “Call of Duty?”

  5. On the other hand, Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri expressed outrage at the attack and condemned it roundly. Of course, his brand of Sunnism has nothing in common with the al-Qaeda affiliates.

    Thank you, professor, for reminding us that there is a third side, both in Lebanon and in Syria. There are so many people working so hard to write the moderates and liberals out of the story, because it is in their interests to cast everyone who isn’t on the side of Assad as al Qaeda.

  6. Hariri and Geagea can complain all they want about Hizbullah’s involvement, but they know that their partisans have been deeply involved in supporting the Syrian rebels with arms, medical supplies and video equipment since the outset. The main difference is that Hizbullah openly sent part of its militia to fight, perhaps because Hizbullah’s is the only militia strong enough and organized enough to do so.

  7. Why are we not calling it a terrorist attack, potentially sponsored by Saudi / other interests? The mainstream media (WAPO, NYT) seems to go with ‘explosion or blast’. Could it be because they are our terrorists!

    • The al Qaeda factions in Syria are clearly not “our terrorists.”

      Just like the Taliban were not “our terrorists” when they massacred the staff of the Iranian embassy in Kabul back in the 1990s, yet that was not widely called terrorism in our media, either. Or even reported.

      I don’t think the linguistic tick you’re noticing is a reflection of the attackers, but the victims: the Iranians. When was the last time you saw the mainstream media call any attack on Iran “terrorist?”

      • I agree with your last point…regarding our terrorists, well they are our client’s (saudi’s) terrorists, hence they are ours.

  8. The Alawites are Shi’ites? Really? They may be allied with them, but from what little I know, they have an esoteric, highly syncretic religion, sometimes dressed in islamic trappings.

    • The Alawites are an Islamic sect although – like many Muslim offshoots – their beliefs are considered so far removed from Islam, many Islamic scholars view their beliefs are too far removed from Shia beliefs to be considered a bona fide branch of Islam.

  9. “and blamed Israel for the blast. This allegation is silly and the Iranian diplomats know it, but it has the virtue for them of allowing them to avoid slamming Sunnis, the community from which the actual culprits hail.”

    Its a ridiculous habit which only serves to obfuscate and deflect the matter, instead of honestly addressing the taboo religo-political Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions or Sunni Islamist militancy.

    Prejudiced conspiratorial delusional demonizing and excuses aren’t harmless and there’s no virtue in it. It only propagates ignorance that misguides the masses and fans the flames of irrational bigotry elsewhere, making sure there’s no debate, accountability, reform and the actual culprits remain off the hook. Lies are repeated so often its possible some Iranian officials probably do buy into it and rationalize it with unfounded indirect links. This narrative ultimately ends up only being detrimental for themselves. It stops them from introspecting their own role in Syria and their actual real local threats in the region against them which differs from fixed perceived or assumed dogmatic biased ones.

    Thought they had at least evolved in naming such terrorist attackers as ‘takfiris’ and the FO considered sectarianism as a top global threat. Apparently not.

  10. mr.cole; excellent article and commentary. i go to you whenever i want to hear the straight skinny.

    david(wisconsin)

  11. “… Christians there (Lebanon) tend to support the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad.”

    This is partially accurate.

    The Maronite Gemayel clan have been bitter enemies of the Assad regime. It was the Syrian intelligence organization that was credited by many with the September of 1982 bombing of the Phalangist Party HQ that killed President-elect Bashir Gemayel.

    That said, the Maronite Franjieh family, who command a militia, are close allies with the Assads.

    Representatives of the Gemayels and Assads met at the Gemayel family estate in Bikfaya earlier this year to agree on a goal to avoid Lebanese entanglemnt in the Syrian civil war.

    • Minor correction:

      The last sentence should state: “Representatives of the Gemayels and Franjiehs…..” NOT Assads.

    • Are the Franjiehs the Maronites that Hafez Assad supported when he invaded Lebanon in 1976?

      • Yes.

        The Franjiehs are a politically influential Maronite clan which during the 1970s had Suleiman Franjieh as Lebanon’s president.

        One of the members of that family also was a GOP nominee for U.S. Congress from Metro Detroit about twenty years or so ago but lost in the general election.

  12. The goal of this particular lie is to reduce sectarian tensions in Lebanon by deflecting blame onto the Zionist other everyone can agree to hate rather than their neighbors. I suppose reducing sectarian tensions right now is a laudable goal but I don’t think this is the way to go about it. Frankly I doubt even Shia are going to really buy the party line here. Still, Hezbollah is likely disciplined enough to keep mass retaliations against Sunnis a la the aftermath of the 2005 Samarra mosque bombing from happening. That makes the odds of a civil war somewhat lower.

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