Analysts: Bombing aims to limit Iran’s role in Syria, undercut US-Iran ties
The twin suicide bombings outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Tuesday that killed 23 people were likely a bid by jihadists to undermine Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia’s involvement in a key offensive in neighboring Syria and subvert a possible rapprochement between the United States and Iran, analysts say.
A shadowy al-Qaida linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the attack, which also targeted a compound housing Iranian diplomats. Nearly 150 people were wounded in the blasts, which occurred in Beirut’s southern Bir Hassan suburb, a Hezbollah bastion.
The bombings, the third such attack by suspected Sunni jihadists in recent months on neighborhoods dominated by the Shiite group, highlight the dangers of a spillover of the Syrian conflict into neighboring countries such as Lebanon, where sectarian tensions between the Shiite and Sunni communities are high.
The aim of the bombing was to get Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades said in a series of tweets on Tuesday. Hezbollah’s forces have been fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad’s army in the nearly three-year-long civil war against rebels, who are mainly backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.
It was not immediately clear whether other diplomatic missions in the Lebanese capital might be at risk.
U.S. military officials declined to discuss what if any heightened security measures had been put in place to protect the U.S. Embassy there. The Marine Corps has troops strategically based at locations in southern Italy and Spain, who have expertise in conducting rapid-response operations and boosting security at embassies.
“We cannot provide information of an operational nature, but the Marines remain trained and postured to support crises and contingencies,” Maj. Lauren Schulz, a spokesman for the U.S. Marine forces in Europe and Africa, said in a statement.
Hezbollah units are currently deployed as part of a Syrian government offensive to clear rebels from the strategically important Qalamoun region just north of the capital of Damascus. The campaign is reported to be making quick progress against the mainly Sunni rebels who have been unable to counter Hezbollah’s effective light infantry tactics in the mountainous terrain.
“While the bombing in Beirut is an effort by the jihadists to force Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from Syria to protect its heartland in Lebanon, it is likely to have the opposite effect,” said Ed Blanche, a Beirut-based analyst and a member of London’s International Institute for Security Studies.
He said this will only make Hezbollah more determined to clear the rebels from Qalamoun, a 30-mile-long area that straddles a key highway between Damascus and loyalist regions along Syria’s coastline.
The bombings may also have been intended to provoke Iran into retaliating, thus undermining the possibility of improved relations with the United States, he said.
“If this was the goal of the operation, it too will fail,” he said. “The Iranians will probably say that the talks with the Americans are far more important to them than going after some crazies in Beirut.”
Other analysts echoed that opinion.
“Iran is unlikely to allow such provocations [as the Beirut bombings] to divert the focus of its negotiations with Washington,” the global intelligence unit Stratfor said in a report released Wednesday.
Representatives of Iran and the United States, along with other world powers, are holding talks in Geneva starting Thursday aimed at reaching an accord that would curb Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington suspects is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. The issue has been a key stumbling block in re-establishing relations between the two countries, which have been severed since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
While the negotiations have not produced any formal agreements yet, diplomats say that differences have narrowed significantly and a preliminary deal may be in sight.
The prospect of an agreement has met with fierce criticism from Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival. Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Sunni government has emerged as the principal backer of the Syrian opposition in its effort to oust the secular regime of President Assad.
“Iran can expect more militant attacks as Sunni rebels, jihadist organizations, and Riyadh try to cloud the U.S. negotiations, but Tehran will try to avoid entangling itself in localized sectarian tit-for-tat while prioritizing its dialogue with Washington,” Stratfor said.
Other analysts predicted that bloodshed would continue spilling over into other countries in the region, as the civil war in Syria increasingly exacerbates tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East.
“Radicalism and terrorism that is raging across the region is fueled by a host of events that are organically connected with one another,” said Barak Seener, an associate Middle East fellow of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
“U.S. engagement with Iran and U.S. concessions towards Iran anger the Sunnis, just as the U.S. inaction in Syria ... increases (Iran’s) activities in Syria,” said Seener, who also heads the Strategic Intelligentia think tank. “This obviously prompts a harsh Sunni backlash targeting Shiites and culminating in the attack on Iran’s Embassy in Beirut.”
Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this report.