A car bomb detonated today in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. So far, four are reported dead and over 50 have been injured. With rumors spreading that the bombing may have been the work of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni jihadist group with ties to al Qaeda, it seems that this was the latest in a series of moves indicating that the regional conflict with Syria as its red-hot center is growing ever wider, now encompassing all the Levant, from Baghdad to Beirut. In the Lebanese capital alone, within a one-week span a former Sunni minister was assassinated, Saudi Arabia bought a $3 billion share of a national army heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah, and then today the Party of God was targeted on its home turf.
With Iran and Saudi Arabia jockeying for position and trading messages and blood across the region, the Obama administration has ostensibly adopted a policy of neutrality—“we’re not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni,” said Obama. The reality is somewhat different as the United States is seen to be siding with Iran and its allies. That may turn out to be a problem for the White House that isn’t going to be solved with drone strikes on al Qaeda figures.
The bombing comes a few days after the arrest of Saudi national Majid bin Mohammad al-Majid, emir of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which has taken credit for a number of operations in Beirut, most notably the bombing of the Iranian embassy. Hassan Nasrallah claims that Majid has links to Saudi intelligence, which, says the Hezbollah chief, was behind the attack on the embassy. Riyadh’s envoy to Lebanon rejects that claim, noting that Majid, listed by the United States as a specially designated foreign terrorist in 2012, is one Saudi Arabia’s most wanted fugitives.
Still, it’s true that Saudi Arabia has a history of sending its troublemakers abroad where their violence may by chance manage to serve Saudi interests. Whether Majid is a part of that pattern remains to be seen. To date, Riyadh’s efforts to counter Iran in Lebanon have been public and legitimate, if, from some perspectives, provocative. Most notably, last week Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion in support of the Lebanese Armed Forces, an ostensibly national institution that has been extensively penetrated by Hezbollah and used against the country’s Sunni community. For instance, a joint LAF-Hezbollah action against a Salafist leader and his followers in June showed that the army had taken sides against the Sunnis, leaving the community vulnerable to the armed faction whose weapons were being used not to fight Israel, but to kill Sunnis in Lebanon as well as Syria. After all, Hezbollah has regularly targeted the Sunni community, most famously in May 2008 when dozens were killed after Hezbollah stormed Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, and stands accused of killing Sunni leaders, like former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hezbollah is also suspected of killing former finance minister Mohamed Chatah last Friday in a car bomb in Beirut close to where his former boss Rafik Hariri was slain in March 2005. There is plenty of speculation as to why Chatah, along with six others including a 16-year-old boy, was murdered last week. Perhaps his murderers saw this Hezbollah opponent as a potential prime minister. Maybe it was a message to anyone who thought of testifying in the upcoming Special Tribunal for Lebanon trials against Hezbollah suspects in the 2005 murder of Hariri. Or perhaps Chatah, whose open letter to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani concerning Hezbollah was published shortly after his death, went too far in his criticism of the hard men who call the shots in Lebanon. The purpose is likely much simpler to fathom: Hezbollah, Iran, and Assad are simply showing who is in charge. They can murder anyone they like with impunity because there is no one to stop them. They kill because they can. Opponents can choose between falling in line or a violent death, because they’re on the losing side and no one is coming to help them, certainly not the White House.
In his statement following the assassination, John Kerry praised Chatah as a “voice of reason, responsibility and moderation.” Indeed, virtually every encomium to Chatah has described him as a “moderate”—a word that in the context of the regional conflict is without meaning. Apparently, a Sunni moderate is just someone who won’t pick up a gun. He’s a moderate if, even after his friends, family members, colleagues, community leaders and clerics have been killed, his neighborhoods besieged, his national institutions subverted by representatives of another confessional sect, the Shia, on behalf of a foreign power, Iran, he won’t pick up a weapon in self-defense. And if he does fight back—then he’s a Sunni extremist. He’s al Qaeda.
And it is because al Qaeda, or Sunni extremism, poses the greatest threat to American interests that the White House has in effect or in reality teamed up across the Levant with Iranian allies and assets to fight Sunnis.
If Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah and Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani have won in Syria, as a U.S. diplomat told the Wall Street Journal, it is because the White House not only failed to push back, but undermined the efforts of its regional and international allies. Maybe Obama just didn’t want to anger the Iranians by attacking their chief Arab ally. But the effect is the same as siding with Iran and its allies:Tthe moderate opposition has been routed, either by Sunni extremists or the radicals fighting alongside Assad. It should hardly come as a surprise if in the near future the White House partners with Assad to fight Sunni extremists, just as it has by sending arms to another Iranian ally fighting with al Qaeda, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. The administration continues to support the Lebanese Armed Forces even as it surely understands that this military is under Hezbollah’s control. Indeed, the fact that Saudis’ $3 billion grant to the LAF is to be spent on French arms and equipment signals a rebuke to a White House that the Saudis distrust—and for good reason: The Obama administration is backing Iran and its allies everywhere, regardless of whether they’re battling al Qaeda or just killing Sunnis like Mohamed Chatah.
The White House says it wants no part of this sectarian war, but that’s not what it looks like in the Middle East. “Sunnis are beginning to see a pattern,” writes Syrian political activist Ammar Abdulhamid. “For all its pretension to noninvolvement, the policies of the Obama administration put it squarely in the camp of Iran in an ongoing identity conflict that is quickly spanning the region. A backlash is bound to happen, and it’s bound to be violent and bloody.”
Obama may believe he’s getting the United States out of the Middle East, but by siding with Iran, he’s put America in the middle of a regional civil war.