A devastating double-suicide bombing targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut, which also happens to be located in a Hezbollah stronghold of the city. The bombing was even more cynical than your average suicide attack since it included a first small motorcycle-bomb which drew rescuers to the scene, and was followed by a much larger car bomb designed to ensure maximum lethality. Twenty-six people were killed including Iran’s cultural attaché and the personal security officer guarding the ambassador. 146 people were injured, some severely. This attack follows two other lethal bombings in Hezbollah strongholds over the past few months.
There are elements to this incident that are clear and other elements not as clear to the naked eye, but evident nonetheless. What is clear is that these bombings are “payback” for Hezbollah’s increasing presence in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Syrian rebels, largely composed of Sunni fighters, some of whom support Al Qaeda, understand that Hezbollah has provided major support for Assad and especially at a critical juncture when government forces appeared to be crumbling. The Sunni fighters have determined that the best way to undermine Hezbollah’s commitment is to hit them “where they live.” That is, in the Shiite heartland of Beirut (or those city neighborhoods in which Shia and Hezbollah predominate). The bombers figure if they can kill enough Shia, they might rattle the conviction of Hezbollah, or at least peel away local supporters who didn’t bargain for a guerrilla war in their own backyard.
There is also a certain dark irony in suicide bombs being used against Hezbollah strongholds since the Islamist movement is alleged to have used this weapon to such potent effect historically. It has been accused of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the bombing of the 1983 Marine barracks among others.
The bombers must also believe that the more mayhem they can sow in the region, the more pressure they bring to bear on the international community to intervene and get rid of Assad. My sense, though, is that this strategy will fail. If Beirut were Berlin it might be different. But (and this is a cynical calculation I concede) very few western nations want to take on the insoluble issues involving either Syria or Lebanon right now.
Now I want to take on that less evident element I mentioned above. Is there a hidden hand at work here? This series of bombings, especially the one today, was bold, ambitious, and extraordinarily lethal. Could the Syrian rebels have organized this on their own? Though there have been massive bombings inside Syria which were undoubtedly the work of the rebels, I can’t help believing that much of the know-how for the most sophisticated of them comes from outside. Who else would have the expertise, financing and motivation to do this? Only one nation stands out: Saudi Arabia.
Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz (Hebrew):
The open question is whether the [Abdallah Azzam Brigades] could’ve carried out such an attack by itself or whether it was aided by a foreign country…The principle supporter of the Sunni extremist forces in Syria is Saudi Arabia; and it has invested an extraordinary effort in persuading the international community to continue pressuring Iran on the nuclear issue…
The most important issue to analyze is the Saudi motivation for carrying out such a campaign of terror. Every observer of the Middle East knows of the Saudis’ disenchantment, nay rage at developments concerning Iran. They and Israel are the two most adamant opponents of a nuclear deal. What better way to hit two birds with one stone than to attack both Hezbollah AND Iran in Lebanon? As the chief arms supplier and financier of the Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia has a clear motive to attack Hezbollah for its role there. As Iran’s chief rival in the Gulf region, and one frightened about the prospect Iran might develop WMD, the Saudis would have every motive to attack Iranian interests wherever they could find them.
Israel is denying it was the author of the bomb attack. My own Israeli source confirms this (he says even indirect involvement is unlikely). But there’s a related concern: Saudi Arabia is coordinating its strategy regarding both Syria and Iran very closely with Israel. As I’ve reported, there have been at least two meetings between Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo and Prince Bandar. The only question is whether they discussed this terror campaign. Even more concerning: are they doing more than just discussing? Is Israel offering its extensive Lebanese intelligence assets in planning and executing attacks like the one in Beirut?
Israel too has every motive to involve itself in this campaign. Hezbollah is its arch-enemy on the northern front. Most every Israeli officer knows Israel will fight another war before long there. What better way to tweak your future enemy by hurting him “where he lives?” In addition, Israel’s covert operations inside Iran have assassinated nuclear scientists and sabotaged missile bases. So of course Israel would have no compunction with participating, even in a surreptitious way, in a terror attack against Iranian interests.
Both Iranian enemies know that Iran is now in no position to retaliate for such bombings. Its primary priority is completing a nuclear deal and lifting sanctions. To respond tit for tat would give all the Iran-skeptics the opening they’re looking for in saying that it cannot be trusted to honor any agreement it makes. That leaves Bandar, and perhaps Pardo, grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary.
If my suppositions are true, both the Saudis and Israelis (if they’re involved) are playing a very dangerous game. Terror never wins. It only destroys. But it never constructs. It will not avert a nuclear deal with Iran nor will it topple Assad. If Saudi Arabia’s allies can’t bring down Assad on the battlefield, they have even less chance of impacting the fight through acts of terror.
They also run the risk of driving away allies like the U.S. and other western states which have supported Saudi and Israeli interests up till now. Can the west ultimately afford alliances with Middle East states that use acts of terror in pursuit of state policy? Not to mention, that when the world finally fingers them for these deeds, they too (like Nasrallah and Assad) may end up in the dock in the Hague for war crimes.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.