Beirut Bombing: Hezbollah Fights in Syria, Lebanon Pays the Price

Beirut bomb unlikely to enable Iran to play the victim during renewed nuclear talks in Geneva.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

International interest in the Syrian civil war began to dwindle as soon as it became clear that the United States did not intend to attack President Bashar Assad’s regime for its use of chemical weapons against the rebels last August. But the massacres in Syria continue, and often spill over into neighboring countries. The attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut appears to be a direct result of the Syrian civil war and the fact that both Iran and Hezbollah are involved in the conflict in support of the regime in Damascus.

The organization which claimed responsibility for the attack, the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade, is a fanatic Sunni faction affiliated with Al-Qaida that has branches operating in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Azzam, a Palestinian from the Jenin area in the West Bank, was Osama Bin-Laden’s spiritual advisor in Pakistan and was killed in a car accident there in the late 1980’s.

The Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, a relatively small organization with mainly Palestinian operatives, has taken responsibility in the past for launching short-range Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.

Tuesday's sophisticated, two-step attack – a suicide attacker on a motorcycle broke into the Iranian embassy compound, clearing the way for a car wired with explosives to enter the area and detonate – appears to be an attempt to use the same radical techniques against Iran and Hezbollah that the organization generally employs against its enemies in the region. It remains unclear if this organization is capable of such an attack on its own, or received assistance from a foreign state with more advanced terror capabilities.

Iran, in almost Pavlovian fashion, was quick to blame Israel for the attack. It is a baseless claim: Israel has no interest in getting involved in the bloody Syrian conflict and it makes no sense for Israel to side with Sunni extremists in Lebanon, who deny Israel’s right to exist anyway. In the Arab media, these claims were also dismissed. The primary sponsor of these Sunni extremist groups is Saudi Arabia, not Israel, and Saudi Arabia is also currently investing a great deal of effort in trying to convince the international community to continue applying pressure on Iran to scrap its nuclear program. In any case, it seems that the Syrian connection is clear. Along with its message claiming responsibility, the Azzam Brigades also called for all Iranian revolutionary personnel and Hezbollah operatives to leave Syria.

It is possible that the timing of the attack is not a coincidence. Over the last few days, fierce battles have been going on in the Qalamoun Mountains, which strategically sit above the road from Damascus to Homs. It seems that the Assad regime, with help from Hezbollah, is managing to secure the area. This is a Syrian attempt to recreate the success it enjoyed in June, when it managed with Hezbollah help to win a tactical victor in Qusayr, a city on the Lebanese border. Over 20,000 residents from the Qalamoun region have fled their homes into Lebanon. Restricting Hezbollah’s participation with Assad’s regime is essential in the eyes of the Syrian opposition.

The attack on the Iranian embassy on Tuesday is one of a slew of attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah power bases in Lebanon, which includes Katyusha fire and other explosives in Dahieh, the Shi’ite sector in southern Beirut a few months ago. These attacks are an attempt to present Hezbollah with a threat on the home front – to make it clear to the organization that it will pay a heavy internal price for prolonged intervention in Syria. Still, at this point it is difficult to believe that something can divert Hezbollah or the Iranians from assisting Assad.

The attack comes just before the renewal of nuclear talks in Geneva on Wednesday, though it is unlikely to help Iran play the role of victim in a convincing way. The Revolutionary Guard have carried out many similar terrorist attacks and Iranian embassies throughout the world have been used as forward command centers for many intelligence gathering and terrorist operations. It’s doubtful that Iran will earn much sympathy from the West.

For Israel, it seems wise to continue its policy of refraining entanglement in the Syrian-Lebanese turmoil. The Syrians are still seeing the worst of it all – it’s enough to consider the fact that yet another winter awaits the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in camps in Jordan and Turkey. As long as Israeli intervention in the conflict is limited to the many aerial attacks against Syrian weapons convoys that have been attributed to it in recent months, the chances of being dragged into the conflict remains low.

Two Lebanese men remove a dead body from a burned car, at the scene where two explosions have struck near the Iranian Embassy killing many, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013.Credit: AP

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