Lebanon, to borrow a phrase from one anti-Hezbollah Sunni leader, is a two-way street. Shiite troops may go north to spearhead the fighting in the Qalamoun range, in Syria, but terror can also go south, to the Shiite stronghold in south Beirut.
On Tuesday, as Hezbollah-led, Iran-guided troops fought for Bashar Assad’s regime in the mountains, an extremist Sunni group allegedly perpetrated a devastating, two-stage terror attack outside the Iranian embassy in Lebanon. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni terror group, took responsibility for the attack, which killed 23 people and wounded dozens more. Sheikh Siraj al-Din Zureiqat, a spiritual leader of the brigades, called it a “double martyrdom operation carried out by two heroes from the heroic Sunnis of Lebanon.”
It was hardly the first such attack since Hezbollah began abetting, and then openly aiding, Syrian troops in their battle against Sunni rebels. In May, Sunni militants fired four rockets into the Hezbollah-dominated Dahiyeh neighborhood. In July, a massive car bomb wounded dozens in the same region. In between those two attacks, on June 27, IDF chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, somewhat uncharacteristically, declared that “the fire in Lebanon was burning the fringe of [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah’s robe.”
The attack on Tuesday stoked the fire. It further destabilized the notoriously fractured state of Lebanon. What remains to be seen, though, and what should become increasingly clear as the identity of the dead and injured are publicized and the full nature of the attack is revealed, is whether this assault on the Iranian embassy was just a vengeful strike against Iran and its Lebanese proxies – the infliction of the sort of internecine carnage seen all across the Levant and especially in Iraq – or whether the attack was backed by intelligence and targeted important Iranian assets.
The two-pronged nature of the attack would indicate little more than a thirst for blood, a desire to increase the number of the dead. If this is the case, then the only significant development to be noted, beyond the human tragedy and the blow to the cedar state, is that for the first time Iran, and not merely Hezbollah, has been overtly and expressly dragged into the conflict.
“This should be seen within the framework of Hezbollah’s participation in Syria,” said Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism and an occasional adviser to the Defense Ministry. He added, though, that the direct targeting of Iran’s embassy in Beirut was also a message from the Syrian opposition that it would not accept Iranian involvement in the upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva.
Ronen Solomon, a civilian intelligence analyst, indicated that not all Sunni Islamist attacks are merely out for blood, and that Saudi intelligence, for example, frequently passes information on to radical Sunni groups. That may have been the case in February, he said, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Big. Gen. Hassan Shateri was killed while en route from Damascus to Beirut. Shateri, whose funeral was attended by a tearful Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, had been stationed in Beirut. He operated under the alias Housam Khosh Nweis and was officially the head of Iran’s reconstruction project in south Beirut after the Second Lebanon War. Unofficially, he may have run the Iranian war effort in Syria.
Little is known beyond the fact that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei released a note after his death, saying that Shateri had “drunk the sweet syrup of martyrdom,” and that Ali Riza Pamahiyan, an associate of Khamenei’s, likened him to the late Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh. “That’s all that can be said, as his secret contribution cannot be mentioned,” the associate said.
Solomon suggested that the Iranian cultural attaché at the embassy in Beirut, Sheikh Ibrahim Sayyed Ali Ansari, who appears to have been killed in Tuesday’s blast, may yet prove to have been a high-level target. For one, he said, he worked in the same part of the embassy as Shateri, and, as was the case in Argentina during the 1994 AMIA bombing and Mohsen Rabbani’s involvement there, the cultural attaché is frequently a Quds Force member. Moreover, he said, over the past month alone Ansari had met with Sheikh Hashem Safi al-Din, the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council and the heir apparent to Nasrallah, should his life unexpectedly end; Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy Sec. Gen. of Hezbollah; and Muhammad Raad, the ranking member of Hezbollah’s parliamentary delegation.
Although these are some high-level meetings for a cultural officer, it does not prove that Ansari was anything beyond a loyal lover of Iranian art. His funeral in Iran, though, may offer further clues.