The Syrian civil war had spilled into Lebanon well before today’s twin bombings against the Iranian embassy in Beirut.
The war in Syrian has become both increasingly sectarian and regional in scope. Most rebels are Sunni Muslims, who receive backing from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and from private funders in the Gulf. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and is backed by Iran and its Lebanese proxy militia, Hezbollah. Both Iran and Hezbollah have sent advisors and foot soldiers to fight with Assad’s army in Syria.
Similar sectarian divides split Lebanon, and these divisions have become deeper as a result of the Syrian war next door. This year there have been attacks on Sunni mosques in Tripoli, in the north of Lebanon, and bombings in the Shia neighbourhoods of south Beirut.
“What you have in Lebanon now is low-intensity warfare,” Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said in an interview with Maclean’s last month.
“The fear is whether the low intensity warfare will escalate into all-out war.”
Today’s attack, for which the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanese Sunni group linked to al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility, is definitely an escalation. The bombings were not directed against Lebanese civilians, but a foreign and sovereign state.
A spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry has blamed Israel and its “mercenaries” for the attack. It’s doubtful that anyone in Tehran really believes Israel played a role in the bombings, or that Iran will hit Israel because of them.
But the Syrian government has also implicitly blamed Saudi Arabia and Qatar, referring to the “reek of petrodollars” rising from the attack. Were Iran to reach similar conclusions, a retaliatory strike by Iran or Iranian proxies against Saudi or Qatari targets is possible.