ARLINGTON, Virginia – The already heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon hit the ceiling this week when a double suicide bombing struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut, dragging the politically polarized country closer to the precipice of civil war. The twin blasts, which killed 25 people and wounded more than 150 others, brought into sharp focus the regional dimensions of the sectarian civil war raging in neighboring Syria, where rebels drawn from the country’s Sunni majority are battling a regime dominated by Alawite’s, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
These regional dimensions are no more evident than in Lebanon, where religious fault lines drawn during the country’s 1975-1990 sectarian civil war still run deep. The country’s Sunni community supports the overwhelmingly Sunni insurgents battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while its Shia plurality backs Assad’s Alawite-dominated government, a longtime ally of Iran and its Lebanese proxy force, Hezbollah (Party of God).
Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party, social movement and militant group, was setup by Iran, the regions’ leading Shia power, during Lebanon’s civil war and has evolved from secretive militia into Lebanon’s most powerful political force. Like its patrons in Tehran, Hezbollah believes it is essential that Assad maintain power in Syria, whose territory provides a conduit for Iranian weapons to reach Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
While Iran and Hezbollah have intertwined their fate with Assad’s embattled regime, the region’s leading Sunni powers, most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have thrown their collective weight behind the Sunni rebels, buttressing the insurgents through the provision of arms and money. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, already ardent opponents before the eruption of the Syrian uprising in March of 2011, are now engaged in a proxy war in Syria that both sides seem to view as a modern day reincarnation of the Battle of Karbala, the 680 A.D. clash in modern-day Iraq that solidified the split between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
These dynamics provide the backdrop for the Syrian civil war, a conflict that has singed the social fabric of neighboring Lebanon, where 17 disparate religious sects are bound together by borders drawn in the League of Nations Mandate period following World War I. Lebanon’s Sunni’s, who already detested the Iranian and Syrian-aligned Hezbollah, became even more incensed in May, when Shia fighters from the Party of God overtly joined the Assad governments brutal campaign against the largely Sunni insurgents battling the Syrian government.
Hezbollah’s overt intervention in Syria’s civil war, which began when the Shia group helped the Assad regime prise the strategic border town of Qusair from the rebels grip, precipitated a violent reaction from militant Sunni Islamist’s in Lebanon, where sectarian tensions are never far from the surface. On July 9, a car bomb tore through Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, wounding more than 50 people in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood of the capitol. A little more than a month later, on August 15, an explosion emanating from a car bomb once again ripped through Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Shia area of the city that is a bastion of support for the Party of God, killing 30 people and injuring more than 300 others in the neighborhood of Ruwaiss.
This bloody wave of violence directed at Assad’s allies was punctuated on November 19, when twin suicide blasts struck outside the embassy of Iran, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is widely reported to be providing robust support to Syrian regime. Lebanon’s already loose social fabric now appears to be coming apart at the seams, as sectarian attacks and the influx of some 825,000 Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni, push the war-scarred nation closer to abyss.