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Bloodletting in Beirut: Iranian embassy bombing brings Islamic cold war to Lebanese soil

Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached on Twitter or at nilebowie@gmail.com

Published time: November 20, 2013 21:13
Forensic experts work on the site of a double suicide bombing outside Iran's embassy in Bir Hassan neighbourhood in southern Beirut on November 19, 2013.(AFP Photo / STR)

The double suicide bombing targeting the Iranian embassy in a Shiite district of southern Beirut is directly linked to the Syrian conflict and the external sponsors of fundamentalist militias losing ground to Assad’s forces.

The brutal attack on the morning of November 19 was carried out by a motorcyclist who detonated himself near the Iranian diplomatic compound, attempting to breach the walls to make way for another man in a car who attempted to drive as close to the embassy building as possible before detonating his device. The attackers failed to substantially damage the embassy, but the double-tap bombing took the lives of two dozen bystanders and first responders, while injuring over a hundred more.

These tactics directly reflect the methods used by Al-Qaeda against Shiite communities throughout Iraq in the worsening terror campaign raging between Sunnis and Shiites.

For the first time, Iranian diplomats were targeted on Lebanese soil, and the attack undoubtedly represents deteriorating relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, the latter serving as the principle financier and arms supplier of the hardline Salafist militias fighting to topple the Syrian government, but losing.

The use of Iraqi-style terror tactics on Lebanese soil could be interpreted by some as a spillover from worsening fighting and lawlessness in Syria, but it is more accurately a measure taken by Salafist fighters in response to strategic victories by Assad’s forces, who have the upper hand and are quickly reconsolidating power.
The Qalamoun front

Lebanese sources indicate that the bombers acted in retaliation to the Syrian government forces’ offensive on the strategic rebel stronghold of Qalamoun, allegedly with assistance from Hezbollah and Iranian advisers, which resulted in the capturing of a key town, Qara. 

Qalamoun is located in a mountainous region northwest of Damascus and is fairly close to the Lebanese border, where the Sunni majorities in the area of Arsal support anti-Assad fighters. The Syrian army’s capturing of the regional town of Qara, one of the last remaining supply routes for the militias into Lebanon, gives Damascus full control over the road linking the capital to the coast in the northwest, while cutting out a crucial corridor that previously linked networks of anti-Assad militias to sympathetic areas in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Meanwhile, in Aleppo, where rebel control has been most notably entrenched, government forces captured Safira in early November, a key town and crossroads for rebel supply routes.

A Shiite cleric walks past a damaged building on November 20, 2013 at the scene of the previous day's double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut in which at least 23 people were killed.(AFP Photo / Anwar Amro)

The Syrian army will soon reach the Turkish border if the current northern campaign trajectory is kept up, meaning that heavy fighting will ensue as hardliners who have occupied the area attempt to maintain their foothold; they could eventually be forced to withdraw into southern Turkey to regroup and likely plan attacks similar to that seen in Beirut. Policy makers in Istanbul and other capitals in the region that previously lent full-on support to hardline rebel brigades will probably come to regret those decisions if they haven’t by now. (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been unusually withdrawn in recent times, in contrast to the early and middle periods of the Syrian conflict, when it looked like the rebels might have had a chance.) Daraa, the southern region adjacent to the Jordanian border where the conflict began, is seen as the main entry point for foreign interference – predominately Saudi and US intelligence.

The United States, along with Britain and France, have openly trained anti-Assad militias on bases within Jordanian territory near Daraa, officially to provide a counterweight to al-Qaida-linked militias, but their genuine motive has always been toppling the Syrian government – directly training and equipping rebels is only to help ensure that foreign powers have sway in a post-Assad Syria, a scenario that is looking more distant and hypothetical by the day.
Government forces control the areas east of Daraa, in addition to the region adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the west. Considering the government’s current winning streak in offensive after offensive, Assad’s forces are conceivably in a strong position to secure the southern region – another step to ending the war, with a military solution being the only viable option as scattered hardline militias have refused to take part in Geneva-2.

Whodunnit?

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has laid the blame for the bombing in Beirut on Israel’s shoulders, despite the al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades claiming responsibility, which is a collection of Sunni jihadist units with networks in Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula who have forewarned further attacks across Lebanon until Iranian forces withdraw from Syria.

It appears to be a favorite tactic of those opposing Assad to dramatically inflate the footprint of Iran in the Syrian conflict; there are no Iranian soldiers on the ground, only military personnel tasked with training and advising Syrian forces. The influence and interference of Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries is by every conceivable measure more extensive, broad, and detrimental to civilians – even the leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Majid Bin-Muhammad al-Majid, is a Saudi national. The group has taken it upon itself to “protect” Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims against the “Shiite domination” of Lebanon.

Lebanese onlookers walk on the site of a double suicide bombing outside Iran's embassy in Bir Hassan neighbourhood in southern Beirut on November 19, 2013.(AFP Photo / STR)

Members of the group have allegedly called for the overthrow of the Saudi government, though their motives and tactics completely serve the interests of the House of Saud.

The social contract between the Saudi royal elite and their domestic branches of al-Qaeda (who interpret the former as opulent and unfit to rule) is essentially a promise that the House of Saud will quietly support their brand of puritanical Islam abroad on condition that they do not challenge the leadership in Riyadh. Unless Iran has compelling evidence directly linking Israel to the Beirut bombing that they have not made public, Tel Aviv’s complicity cannot be fully confirmed, but it is clear that those who oppose a political solution to the Syrian conflict – and a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue – are complicit in this terrorist attack by various degrees of separation.

The bombing in Beirut actually speaks volumes of the ill health and desperation of the Salafist networks systematically waging war on Shiite communities from Beirut to Baghdad.

An Ashura to remember

Lebanese authorities had much evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda was preparing to launch terrorist attacks against recent rallies to celebrate Ashura – a religious event recognized by Shiite Muslims – in Lebanon, but jihadists were unable to do so because of impeccable security provided by thousands of Hezbollah supporters.

Shiites commemorate the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein bin Ali, who was beheaded in 680 AD for opposing the repressive Umayyad caliphate. In remembering Imam Hussein’s act of heroic defiance, Lebanese Shiites have embraced Ashura ceremonies as an expression of defiance against attempts by Sunni Salafist movements to subjugate and oppress them.

Given the geopolitical layout of the region in this ongoing Islamic cold war, this year’s Ashura celebrations had deep ideological characteristics, namely, a collective will to resist against those who seek to impose hegemony and dominate the Islamic world while perverting the values of the faith and unjustifiably cursing others as heretics – hopefully the House of Saud and their liver-eating friends will get the message.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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