Two weeks ago, a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut killed 23 people and injured 147. An Al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni militant group claimed responsibility. They made it clear that this bombing was linked to the war in Syria. Unfortunately, this attack is a harbinger of further violence which will erupt in Lebanon.
This recent development shows the misery of Lebanon, which has continued for more than 50 years, enters a new and dangerous phase -- one which threatens to rip that fragile nation apart. Lebanon was once an example of economic strength and sophistication. It was the pride of the Arab world; a banking and commercial center of the Middle East. It was also a playground for wealthy and powerful Arabs.
Its disintegration proceeded in stages. In 1958, many Lebanese viewed the imperialist United States as their enemy. The Eisenhower administration sent thousands of Marines to the country to make sure the pro American government was not toppled by a revolution. After our intervention, we cobbled together a Lebanese government based on a power sharing agreement between Christians, Muslims, and Druze -- the three largest ethnic blocs.
By 1976, the United States was no longer the target of violence in Lebanon. A bitter civil war between Christians and Muslims dominated the country. Muslims chafed at not having sufficient control over the government in view of their larger population; and the Syrians intervened on their side asserting military control over Lebanon. The Syrian pretext was that they were intervening to quell a bloody civil war between Lebanese Muslims and Christians. Syria's control over Lebanon is the background issue for my novel, Enemy Of My Enemy.
Meantime, Palestinians who had settled in the southern part of the country and southern suburbs of Beirut, used Lebanese soil to launch attacks against Israel. While the Palestinians did little damage to Israel, they provoked a powerful Israeli military response.
Following the devastation, the Iranians brushed aside the objections of the weak Lebanese government and joined with their Shiite brethren in Lebanon to create Hezbollah which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Iran funneled through Shiite Syria advanced military weapons to Hezbollah. Soon Hezbollah was a state within the state of Lebanon. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had more power within the country than any Lebanese politician. A combination of the Syrians and Hezbollah had Lebanon in a virtual strait jacket.
In 2006, Nasrallah made a disastrous miscalculation by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, which led to a devastating 34-day war for Lebanon with Israel. After it ended, the Iranians financed Hezbollah's rebuilding, sending even more advanced arms and missiles. Hezbollah's demand of a veto over Lebanese government actions prevented the Lebanese from forming a viable government. The reality was that Iran and its Lebanese proxies, Nasrallah and Hezbollah, were in the cat bird's seat, dominant and feared in Lebanon. That was the situation at the time the Syrian civil war erupted and Sunni rebels tried to oust Assad.
When Assad was losing earlier this year and on the ropes, the threat to Iran, Nasrallah, and Hezbollah was significant. To start with, Assad is a fellow Shiite and his ouster to Sunnis was intolerable. Also, keeping Syria in friendly hands was essential to maintain the flow of arms from Iran to Lebanon. With so much at stake, Iran and Hezbollah intervened directly in the Syrian civil war sending not only arms and money but their own troops.
Nasrallah may have badly miscalculated again just as he did with Israel in 2006. His entry into the Syrian civil war has prompted militant Sunnis to attack Hezbollah's rear flank in Lebanon and to punish Hezbollah for its actions in Syria. This is the context for the two powerful suicide bombings two weeks ago in Beirut.
These attacks are even more significant because they came only five days after Nasrallah declared defiantly in a speech in Beirut to observe Ashura, one of the most important Shiite holidays, that Hezbollah forces will remain in Syria. The militant Sunnis were making it clear to Nasrallah that he would have a price to pay. Equally important for Lebanon, the Sunnis were also telling Nasrallah that there was a new sheriff in town. He and Hezbollah are no longer the dominant military power in the country -- dwarfing the weak Lebanese army.
Emboldened by money and arms from the Saudis and Gulf states, the militant Sunnis are now taking the battle to Iran and their Shiite proxies everywhere in the Middle East including Lebanon. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Skirmishes between armed Sunnis and Shiites now engulf neighborhoods in Lebanon nearly every week."
Looking to the future, this means that two powerful paramilitaries will be squaring off in Lebanon. This tiny country which has endured battles with the United States, a Christian Muslim civil war, and two wars with Israel, is now facing its most dramatic test. It is becoming one more battlefield in the increasingly violent warfare that is pitting Sunnis against Shiites throughout the Middle East.
Lebanon is in no position to endure this violence. It has a weak caretaker government and an ineffectual army. It is being flooded with refugees from Syria. It seems unlikely that this fragile state can hold together.