Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013

On the eve of Lebanon’s Independence Day, it appears the country’s fragile stability couldn’t be more dependent on external actors and events.

Two suicide bombs went off outside the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon on Tuesday, killing 23 people and wounding almost 150, including the embassy’s cultural attaché. A Lebanese group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, took responsibility for the operation. Although their involvement is unverified, the group said the double suicide attack was meant to condemn Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.

The latest attack gives more credence to the argument that Lebanon remains a battleground of the Middle East. While the state itself has not overtly entered any regional conflict or become entrenched in prolonged violence, the country has been plagued by bombings and political gridlock throughout the year, all linked to the crisis in neighboring Syria.

Any lingering considerations of “spillover” from Syria into Lebanon have become confirmations.

Tuesday’s bombings are especially significant because of its timing and impact on several regional and international issues. The first is the effect on Lebanon’s fragile political state. The bombings solidify claims that the Syrian crisis can drastically impact the country in more ways than just politics. It almost seems that external and internal actors are vying to see who can drag Lebanon into conflict first. Various groups have committed senseless violence in cities of Tripoli and Dahiye which are later lazily and dangerously defined by whether they targeted largely Shiite or Sunni areas.

Political leaders condemn opposing domestic political groups and alliances following each outbreak of violence, only perpetuating divisions and making the Lebanese population increasingly immune to the effects of the attacks and gridlock. Threats of protracted violence or war by key Lebanese figures are linked to the inability to form a strong, representative government, maintain “disassociation” from Syria, or solve the Iran’s nuclear issue. Further, the UN Refugee Agency reports that Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, has absorbed over 800,000 refugees from Syria, a conservative estimate. As these realities converge, it becomes harder to determine who really speaks for Lebanon.

Second, while the bombings were likely meant as a sign to Iran and Hezbollah over their pro-Assad position in Syria, targeting an Iranian embassy inevitably poses some implications for the United States and for Iran’s regional position as it relates to the nuclear talks in Geneva. In this case, timing was important. The US condemnation of the bombings by Secretary of State John Kerry highlights the fascinating dynamic between Iran and the United States as both parties try to come to a deal on Iran’s nuclear enrichment. Can both parties address the nuclear issue in a vacuum without focusing on Syria? More interestingly, will Washington and Tehran’s apparent mutual concerns over al-Qaeda and its affiliates’ hostile threats move discussions forward on the nuclear front?

The final implication is how the bombing impacts the ongoing crisis in Syria. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria will continue to plague Lebanon. The group has pledged to continue fighting after the attack and is working with Syrian troops to capture parts of Qalamoun, a strategically important area in Syria. The lack of a political solution and intractability of the conflict over time has polarized Syrian and Lebanese parties and furthered sectarian divisions on Sunni-Shiite lines. While religious divisions were was not necessarily a dominant factor initially, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the extremist opposition groups have both succeeded in a “divide and conquer” strategy, transforming the conflict on sectarian lines. With little movement by the international community, these divisions are hardening.

Ultimately, the “enemy of an enemy is a friend” mentality must be assessed as the prolonged Syrian conflict becomes increasingly defined by a choice between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. As the international community determines an approach to resolving Syria, it is now necessary to consider which group and its supporters would cause less instability regionally and whether this answer is different for a country like Lebanon versus countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United States. Further, if a nuclear deal comes to fruition, what would be the impact on Saudi Arabia and Israel? The only certitude is that Assad remains undeterred.

Terrorism knows no boundaries, and neither do its implications. As Lebanon celebrates 70 years of independence on Friday, the main question remains whether the embassy bombing and any subsequent attacks or strife will unite Lebanon’s fragile, independent state, or further divide it. This year’s four previous bombings have demonstrated that it is oftentimes easier to cling to communities, parties and ideologies rather than defend and support Lebanon as a nation. There is little to suggest why the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack will be different.

The insecurities of many regional actors are now out in the open. In Lebanon, another layer to the regional tumult has been solidified and the state is slowly being roped in to external conflicts, most of which directly and indirectly impact the United States. For the international community, it is an opportune time as ever to get moving on resolving the crisis in Syria, securing a deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, and protecting Lebanon’s sovereignty.

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