Earlier this week an Al Qaeda-linked Sunni militant group, named after a Palestinian Jihadist from Jordan, claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing targeting the Iranian embassy in Lebanon. The Abdullah Azzam Brigade said that further attacks will follow unless rival Shi’i paramilitary Hezbollah withdraws its forces from the ongoing conflict in Syria, where it is fighting alongside the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
For the citizens of Lebanon and Beirut, the human cost of the attacks - 23 fatalities at last count - is tragic. Yet the complex web of trans-regional motivations and alliances which provides the backdrop to this latest attack also reveals a number of disturbing truths about the current regional condition.
From spillover threat to spilled-over reality
Firstly, that the Syrian conflict has engulfed the entire region is now beyond question. Politicians and analysts have warned about spillover into surrounding states since fighting began in Aleppo over two years ago, but this attack is the clearest signal yet that the Syrian war is not only killing people within Syria.
Previously, threats to the stability of neighbouring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey were centred on the massive refugee situation. Lebanon in particular, a country with the same population as Ireland, has received a staggering one million refugees. But this attack, in the wake of August bombings in Beirut and Tripoli, has brought direct violence into the equation and can only exacerbate the fragile security situation in the country and further polarise pro- and anti-Assad factions. Indeed, this is precisely what the perpetrators want.
Secondly, the nature of the attacks - terrorist suicide bombings - is a particular concern in a city as famous for liberal partying as fundamentalist parties. Fears of a degeneration of the security situation in the country, raised in the wake of the summer car-bombings, are compounded. Suicide attacks are rife in both Syria and Iraq, but the spread to the previously somewhat stable Lebanon is a sign of a worsening situation. Such a modus operandi is also the hallmark of Al-Qaeda, which is seeing its fortunes rise as it recuperates elsewhere in North Africa, Yemen and Iraq.
Thirdly, the sectarian overtones of the bombing encapsulate the growing rift between Sunni and Shi’i elements which has been a feature of post-Arab spring instability. Iran and its ally (some would say minion) Hezbollah, the bastions of Shi’i Islam in the region, were targeted in this case for more political than sectarian reasons. Yet their support for each other and for Assad stems from factors which include religious ties, while the motivations of the Abdullah Azzam Brigade and similar rebel factions in Syria are fundamentally intertwined with Sunni Islam.
Sunni-Shi’i conflict is also increasingly dividing a struggling Iraq. Although it is necessary not to overstate this element of Middle East politics and society - talk of a religious civil war which will divide the Middle East is an exaggerated simplification of a complex and nuanced reality - sectarian cleavages are worrying.
Responses at the national, regional and international level to the development need to be measured. In Lebanon, national solidarity must be prioritised. The country, polarised after years of devastating civil war and divisive Syrian occupation (which only came to an end in 2005), should resist the temptation to see red and allow terrorist attacks to sway its delicate sectarian balance. For the largely Sunni March 14 alliance, blaming the attack on Hezbollah’s presence in Syria would be a convenient but counterproductive response to score cheap political points and ignore the threat to national security. For Hezbollah, who could use the attack to portray itself as a victimised target, retaliation must take a back seat to preserving the relatively moderate reputation it has fashioned within Lebanon in recent years.
Regionally, efforts to promote such solidarity in Beirut are more important than seeking to play a winning move on the Lebanese chessboard. The recent overtures of Iran under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani seem to demonstrate a tentative willingness to move towards dialogue rather than diatribe on regional and international issues. Along with Saudi Arabia, Tehran holds the key to defusing the political and sectarian divides cleaving the Middle East; rather than double-down on Hezbollah and Syria and entrench itself in the face of the perceived Sunni threat, continued cooperation and coordination with other regional actors in tackling terrorism is paramount.
Finally, at the international level, engagement and encouragement remains the key. Initial responses from the west have been promising. David Cameron’s much publicised phone call to President Rouhani, after years of diplomatic cold-shouldering, bodes well for future dialogue with Tehran. For Lebanon, the tap of international aid to help it cope with humanitarian - and now security - threats must be kept firmly turned on. It is through such a concerted effort that the “regional war” presaged - and perhaps desired - by Bashar Al-Assad can be avoided.