Iran and al-Qaida face off over Syria in fragile Lebanon

AFP-JIJI

Bombs targeting Iran’s embassy in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold point to a confrontation between Tehran and al-Qaida in Lebanon, which is paying a heavy price for the war in neighboring Syria, analysts said.

At least 23 people were killed and nearly 150 wounded in Tuesday’s double suicide bomb attack on the embassy of Iran, which supports Hezbollah and backs Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

The al-Qaida-linked Abdullah Azzam brigade claimed responsibility for the attack.

“It is a direct confrontation between al-Qaida on one side and all those who back the Syrian regime and Iran on the other,” said Hilal al-Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “The two blasts are a direct message to Iran that says: ‘You are the origin of the problem in Syria. We will face you directly, not by proxy.’”

Iran’s embassy is in south Beirut, a stronghold of powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah.

The brigade that claimed the bombings is backed by Iranian financing and weapons. It has sent fighters to support Syrian troops against rebels, including Sunni jihadists.

The attack came after two car bombs in south Beirut in summer. One of them, on Aug. 15, killed 27 people.

“Despite the tight, effective security measures taken by the authorities in Lebanon, Lebanon and Syria’s (territories) are open to each other via uncontrolled borders. It is not difficult for terrorists to cross over,” said Khashan.

The professor pointed to recent reports that “large numbers of fighters from the (jihadist) Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaida have crossed over into Lebanon, and specifically Beirut.”

Lebanon’s army and security forces have in recent months defused several explosives-laden cars.

Political tensions in Lebanon have soared in recent months as the Syrian war has raged on.

Because of the divisions, Lebanon has been unable for seven months to appoint a new government that all sides can agree on.

Lebanon’s “fragility” is what allows al-Qaida to infiltrate the country, Brookings Doha Center director Salman Shaikh said. This is due to the influence of Hezbollah, which has grown stronger in the past three years, while the Syrian conflict has “paralyzed the Lebanese institutions.”

In recent years, Hezbollah has systematically weakened Lebanon’s official institutions by refusing to give up its massive arsenal and by demanding a majority in government.

‘Dangerous turning point’

More recently, it broke Lebanon’s policy of neutrality in Syria by sending fighters in.

And as Syria’s war has escalated and increasingly involved regional powers, al-Qaida has been trying to “take advantage … as usual,” said Shaikh.

The Sunni extremist group “comes in and does some horrible things,” trying to benefit from “the Syrian vacuum,” he added, comparing the situation to that of Iraq.

The rebels fighting to topple Assad are backed by Persian Gulf states, chiefly Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The kingdom’s media has been waging a fierce campaign against Iran over its role in Syria, while Tehran has adopted Assad’s accusations against Riyadh and Doha that they back “terrorists” in Syria.

Francois Burgat, former head of the French Institute of the Near East, said the Beirut blasts were “a sign of the demoralization and rage of extremists … over the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran on the side of the Syrian regime.”

Hezbollah and Iran’s involvement in the war have played a “defining” role in the struggle, helping Assad’s troops to advance towards Damascus and Aleppo.

As Sunni-Shiite tensions escalate, there are fears of the return of violence similar to Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

“Al-Qaida vs Iran: the face-off in Lebanon,” read a headline in the An-Nahar newspaper, warning such a confrontation risks pushing the country to the brink. “This latest terrorist (act) represents a … dangerous turning point” that throws Lebanon “into an open regional confrontation,” it said.

Khashan said the consequences of Tuesday’s attack would affect Syria as well as Lebanon.

“Al-Qaida wants a security vacuum, but that benefits neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia,” he said.

According to Shaikh, the Lebanese “have no interest in this becoming an intra-Lebanese civil conflict.”

He explained that while it was the Arab-Israeli conflict that led the Lebanese to all-out war in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Syrian conflict is pushing Lebanon in that direction today. “We may get there in the future. … (But) we are not there yet and we have to hold our breath,” Shaikh said.