Soldiers, policemen and medical personnel are seen at the site of explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut November 19, 2013. (Reuters)

Earlier this week, double explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed at least 23 people, including an Iranian diplomat. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Islamist group with links to al-Qaida, took responsibility for the attack.

This is not the first event of its kind. There was a car bomb attack in the southern mainly-Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut a number of months ago, followed by car bomb attacks in the northern mainly-Sunni city of Tripoli – perhaps in retaliation. This is the first major attack since then, and it is also the first one targeting the Iranian embassy directly. The earlier bombing effectively targeted Hezbollah, so this bombing ups the ante.

The bombing appears to be linked to the fighting in Syria. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades are involved, according to their statements, in the fighting in Syria, but they also had a presence in the region before the uprising in Syria and are linked to al-Qaida. And al-Qaida has been associated with one section of the Syrian opposition that has become increasingly influential and powerful, controlling parts of northern Syria. So, many people see this as yet another spillover of the war in Syria.

insight mei INSIGHT: Beirut Bombings Point to New EscalationIt’s possible that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have cells or even allies inside Lebanon that might have facilitated this activity. There are many in the Sunni community in Lebanon who are generally sympathetic to the Syrian uprising, and some of them are more radical and have links to the jihadi factions of the Syrian rebellion. The Sunni community in general is reacting quite strongly to Hezbollah’s open engagement in Syria, where it is fighting alongside the Syrian regime.

As for immediate implications for Lebanon, of course, there is the grief over the people who have been killed and injured, but also a concern about possible retaliation. The previous bomb that went off in the southern suburbs was followed fairly quickly by large bombs in Tripoli in a possible tit-for-tat action.  Lebanon is part of a proxy war that is engulfing the entire Levant; and the alliances that back the rival factions in Lebanon are the same that back opposing groups in Syria and Iraq.  So the immediate concern would be another car bomb.

“[In Lebanon,] a pattern could evolve, as it did in Iraq in 2005-2006 and onward, in which car bombs and suicide missions were one of the main instruments of sectarian and proxy conflict.” – Paul Salem, Middle East Institute

The long-term concern is to what degree Lebanon will be further dragged into the fighting in Syria, and to what degree Lebanon can maintain the very precarious, but remarkable, relative calm, as it has through these last two and a half years of the Syrian conflict.

Internal paralysis

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Civil defense personnel carry a wounded man at the site of explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut November 19, 2013. (Reuters)

As a result of the polarization in the country that has been heightened by the fighting in Syria, the Lebanese political system has become paralyzed. It was unable to hold parliamentary elections, was not able to form a new government, and will possibly be unable to elect a new president when the current president’s term ends in the spring. This paralysis of the political system is decreasing the ability of the state to absorb or manage tensions and leaves the country vulnerable to a more serious breakdown of order.

A pattern could evolve, as it did in Iraq in 2005-2006 and onward, in which car bombs and suicide missions were one of the main instruments of sectarian and proxy conflict. It hasn’t reached that level in Lebanon – these bombings are still somewhat few and far between – but a great concern is that if this becomes a more frequent pattern, then Lebanon would not be able to maintain its fragile calm. Such a pattern would also have a major impact on the economy and people’s livelihoods. The major players might not have an interest in the situation getting to this point, but there are enough radical groups that are out of control that could raise the risk.

How long Lebanon can hold on is not altogether clear, particularly given the vast number of Syrian refugees registered in the country, which is approaching three quarters of a million, with another five to six hundred thousand unregistered Syrians in the country as well. They bring with them their own security concerns. If any of these refugees become armed and militarized, then that would be a game changer.

Factoring Hezbollah into the equation, there are some in the Syrian opposition and backers of the Syrian opposition that would like to hit the militant group at home in order to weaken it in Syria. This is not a majoritarian position among the opposition’s backers, however. Generally the Gulf countries, Turkey, and all of the main players have been clear about wanting to maintain stability in Lebanon, but there are some radical elements who think otherwise. Hezbollah knows that it might be goaded in this direction, but Iran and the Assad regime would want Hezbollah to resist that and avoid the risk of being dragged into open fighting in Lebanon. Also, Hezbollah is comfortable with the status quo in Lebanon. It helped engineer the current paralysis, and it wants Lebanon to remain calm so that it has a free hand to fight in Syria.

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A Shi'ite cleric passes in front of a damaged building, at the scene where explosions struck, a day before, near the Iranian embassy in Beirut, November 20, 2013. (AP)

As for accusations voiced by an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman that Israel was behind the bombing, Iran and Hezbollah often blame Israel in such situations. They don’t want to accuse Sunni radicals of doing it, even if it might be obvious that they did. Iran has had the ambition of leading the whole Muslim world, which is 80 percent Sunni. Hezbollah, after the 2006 war, was extremely popular, with Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, cited as the most popular person in the Arab world. Now they have lost almost all of that popularity, but they have always been careful to downplay conflicts with the Sunni world. So, they automatically try to deflect tension via Israel.

This bombing in Lebanon is not unique; it is part of a pattern of sectarian and proxy warfare that has paralyzed and devastated Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and that threatens security in Bahrain and has implications for Yemen. The policy implication is that it is important for the international community not to respond to this bombing as a singular event. It serves as a reminder of the need to address the bigger issues, which for the regional players as well as the global players, including the United States, Russia, and others, involves moving forward with the Geneva II conference on Syria and offering support to Syria’s neighbors, especially Lebanon, progress on the P5+1 talks with Iran, and actions to de-escalate the sectarian conflict that is tearing Syria apart and continues to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon.

This post is based on an interview first published on

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 INSIGHT: Beirut Bombings Point to New Escalation

Paul Salem

Paul Salem is vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute.