Thursday, 21 November 2013

Jihadists violently strike at Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon

Twin explosions at the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon on November 19 in Beirut's Jnah neighbourhood killed 23 people and wounded 146 others. The al Qaeda-linked group Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attacks. The explosions are Sunni jihadist’s response to Iran’s heavy involvement with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but are unlikely to deter Tehran from further support for the regime.

Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Ansari, the Iranian cultural attache in Lebanon, was among those killed in the Beirut embassy bombing, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman confirmed. The Iranian Embassy in Lebanon's cultural adviser, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ansari, was also killed in the blasts.

Initial reports from the scene said rockets hit the Embassy, while others said it was a car bomb. However, security footage emerging later showed a man in an explosives belt rushing toward the outer wall of the Embassy before detonating the explosives, Lebanese officials said. Different reports describe the first bomber on either a motorcycle or on foot.

The first explosion was likely meant to weaken or remove the outer gate of the compound in preparation for the second strike with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). However, it is also possible the first bomber succumbed to environmental pressure, panicked, and rushed the plan before his associates were ready with the second strike.

Lebanese officials said the second explosion was caused by the VBIED. According to CCTV footage, a Renault Rapid van was used to deliver explosives to the Embassy gate about a minute after the first blast. That explosion damaged the facade of the Embassy, but did little structural damage, suggesting the van was either unable to breach the Embassy gate or the amount of explosives was too little to cause large-scale damage. Judging by pictures of the damage at the scene, estimates that the van carried about 50 kilograms of explosives are likely fairly accurate.

The high casualty rate reflects the early morning timing of the attack. Both explosions occurred in succession around 9:42 am local time, indicating the bombers intended to inflict maximum casualties. Many of the Embassy staff would have been arriving or setting up for the day when the blasts struck. Many pedestrians would also have been moving past the Embassy at the time, increasing the amounts of people injured.

Both the Iranian Embassy and the ambassador’s residence were targeted in the attack. This was the third successful jihadist strike on a hardened target in Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon in the past five months. The attack ruptured more than two months of relative quiet in Lebanon. Violent spillover from the Syrian civil war has given Lebanon plenty to worry about in 2013, and a return of violence could disrupt the fragile political atmosphere in the broken nation.

Sunni militants, probably operating out of Syria, targeted the Iranian Embassy in response to Iran’s heavy support on the side of the Syrian regime. The objective for this particular strike was meant to hit back unexpectedly in Lebanon at a distracted and fatigued Hezbollah and at an Iranian regional command centre while both of those forces focus on supporting the Syrian regime in its fight against rebels.

Secondarily, Sunni militants have been trying to erode Hezbollah’s political influence in Lebanon as much as possible with similar attacks in the past. The latest attack is a continuation of this pattern.

But instead of deterring further Iranian and Hezbollah assistance to the embattled Syrian regime, these attacks are likely to encourage more support for Syria from Iran and could precipitate tit-for-tat attacks on Sunni targets in Syria or elsewhere in the Levant. Tehran and Hezbollah understand the need to stay firmly behind the Syrian regime at this time. Iran is entering into deeper negotiations with the United States to discuss both the Iranian nuclear program and the larger issue of influence over the Middle East.

Alongside this, Iran and Syria hold a strong position in the civil war while the rebel’s only arms provider is Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Western support for the rebels is on hold while the negotiations continue. The latest bombings against the Embassy will likely be brushed aside as tragic but not strategically important for Iran or Hezbollah.

This leaves the secondary goals. Stirring the political waters in Lebanon will probably be more successful, but not entirely predictable.  More attacks are certainly likely in the future which could lead to potentially harsh reprisals on Lebanese Sunnis by Hezbollah members attempting to crack down on militants.

Crackdowns will exacerbate the already deep sectarian fissures in Lebanon. It will also facilitate wrenching the Sunni population and Hezbollah further apart, further undermining Hezbollah’s already struggling political power in Lebanon. Hurting Hezbollah’s political gains in Lebanon will indirectly help the Syrian rebel effort, but this particular effect will likely take time to emerge.

Iran has been involved in Syria’s internecine conflict since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. As a long-time ally to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Iran supported the Syrian regime through thick and thin. Tehran dispatched members of its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Syria on multiple occasions to assist Syrian loyalists in their fight.

Syria was an integral part of Iran’s effort to extend influence across the Middle East and Levant, but the raging uprising scuttled Tehran’s plans. Now Iran is trying to salvage as much of their influence in Syria as they can, even though the Syrian President actually more closely resembles the country’s strongest warlord rather than a functional head-of-state.

As well as IRGC troops fighting in Syria, Iran also activated its Shiite Muslim proxy militant group Hezbollah. The group’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has significantly helped the regime to push rebel forces from key positions in southwest Syria. During 2013, Hezbollah have also lost substantial numbers of troops in the conflict which has made the group hesitant to commit further.

Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria have fatigued the group immensely, both politically and operationally. Losing hundreds of fighters in the war is clearly having an effect back in their traditional enclaves in Lebanon as the explosions indicate. While the attack might still have occurred if the group were at full strength, their control over large areas of Beirut, and Lebanon in general, has limited attacks in years past.

More attacks by Sunni rebel forces acting out of Syria can be expected in Lebanon. The goals of the militants have not yet been fully realised. Hezbollah and Iranian strongholds and neighbourhoods will continue to remain attractive targets. However, these attacks are unlikely to deter Iran or its proxy into limiting their involvement in Syria.

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