Beirut, Lebanon: On Tuesday, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian embassy. 23 people were reported dead and 146 injured according to Lebanon’s Ministry of Health. The Iranian cultural attaché Ebrahim Ansari was among the dead. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a radical Sunni group, claimed responsibility via Twitter. Declared a terrorist group by Washington in 2012, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades are allegedly responsible for an attack on a Japanese oil tanker in 2010 in the Straits of Hormuz. They have also planned other attacks against Western interests in the Middle East. The brigades demand their compatriots released from Lebanese prisons and that Iran stop backing Hezbollah in the Syrian Civil War. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades fight on the side of the rebel army. The history of bombings and attacks in Lebanon has changed with the Middle East. Being in the center of it all, Lebanon is the perfect barometer for the region. The most recent attacks come in connection with the Syrian Civil War. But a good look at this Lebanon’s history can shed light on where the region has been and where it’s going.
Syria’s power, influence and affairs have been spilling over into Lebanon for hundreds of years. In fact, they used to be the same country. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1516-1918. After World War I Syria was given to the French by the League of Nations. From there it was split into two countries, Syria and Greater Lebanon. Lebanon stayed a French colony until 1944 when France agreed to allow Lebanon its independence. Because the country is so religiously diverse, a power sharing system was put in place. A Maronite Christian took the presidency, a Sunni Muslim the prime minister’s position and a Shia Muslim would be the Speaker of the Chamber of Duties. The system worked. However, some believed that power was concentrated too much in the hands of the Maronite Christians.
In 1958 U.S. marines were sent to Lebanon on President Camille Chamoune’s request to quell Muslim opposition to his rule. Though things calmed down on the surface for almost two decades, the seeds of this conflict bud into the Lebanese Civil War.
Though Lebanon doesn’t get involved like many of its neighbors in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, its southern region becomes a base for Palestinians to plan and conduct attacks on Israel. This in turn leads to an Israeli invasion. Israel invades twice during the seventies and eighties to wipe out the PLO and help establish a pro-Israel and pro-Western government. Lebanon then is split in two. The first part supported by the West and ruled by the Christians, and the other supported by Iran, Syria and those who oppose the West. East Beirut is supported by Israel, West Beirut by Syria. The PLO is eventually wiped out.
Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War starts when Phalangists attack a bus killing 27 riders, mostly Palestinians. They say this is in revenge for a church that was attacked in their district by Muslim guerillas. This sparks a string of tit-for-tat battles. In 1978 Syria has had enough and invades, with the approval of other Arab nations, to stop the violence.
Throughout the history of this fifteen year bloody conflict, Lebanese civilians are rattled by vehement attacks and intermittent bombings. People around the world see victims on the news periodically, neighbors and loved ones crying, ambulances with lights flashing, cars blackened smoking husks, twisted and torn apart.
In April 1983, the U.S. embassy in Beirut was attacked. A 400-pound truck bomb, driven by a suicide bomber, killed 63 people. 17 Americans died. U.S. intelligence in the region is also set back. The explosion wiped the CIA’s Middle Eastern headquarters right off the map.
An infamous date in the minds of many marines and civilians, October 23, 1983 was the date of the deadliest attack on Americans prior to 9/11. Terrorists hijacked a 19 ton water truck, loaded it down with tens of thousands of tons of TNT, and drove it over a barbed wire fence into the barracks of a marine base. They detonated their explosives in the center of the base, killing 241 U.S. servicemen. This was the single largest non-nuclear explosion in history. The crater it left was eight feet deep. The base lay in rubble. Those military units had been in Lebanon as part of a larger international peace keeping force. They were trying to stabilize the country. Hezbollah with support from Iran has been blamed for this attack.
East Beirut was invaded by Syria in 1990 deposing the Western backed president and ending the civil war. In 1991 the National Assembly passed legislation disbanding all the militias, except Hezbollah which was too powerful to dislodge. Hezbollah attacked Israel with rockets periodically. Israel in turn bombed Hezbollah positions and strongholds. Syria continued its stranglehold on Lebanon and its influence on Lebanese politics.
In February 2005 a car bomb in Beirut killed President Rafik Hariri, who opposed Syria. Anti-Syrian protests filled the streets causing Syrian troops to finally leave that April. Syrian troops had been a presence in the country since the end of the civil war fifteen years earlier.
In July and August of 2006 Israel goes to war with Hezbollah after the terrorist group kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. A terrorist organization now entrenched in the south Hezbollah launched hundreds of rockets into northern Israel. Israel bombed Hezbollah targets in response. Lots of damage was done to the infrastructure of southern Lebanon. But in the end, Israel failed to dislodge Hezbollah, making the terrorists grip stronger and increasing their prestige among those who admire them. Hezbollah in addition to its military arm has its own schools, services and government offices and even has representatives in the Lebanese parliament.
On October 19, 2012 a car bomb exploded during rush hour in Beirut’s center, killing eight and wounding 80. Among the dead is Wissam al-Hassan, a top intelligence official. Al-Hassan was investigating the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri at the time. It was thought that either Syria or Hezbollah was behind the assassination plot, though both have vehemently denied these allegations. The bombing took place in a mostly Christian area of the city. This event highlighted the deep divide in Lebanon between those backing the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and those backing the rebel forces.
27 died in two bombings that took place in Tripoli Last August. The bombers were linked to rebel fighters in Syria. In early November of this year, a Hezbollah stronghold in a Beirut suburb was car bombed killing 22 and injuring hundreds. This latest attack also displays how the Syrian Civil War is spilling over into Lebanon.
Lebanon since World War II has been the crossroads of proxy wars between Israel and the West on one side and their enemies, the PLO, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran on the other. Is the history of bombing and attacks over in Lebanon? Not likely. But with so much focus on the violent acts themselves we tend to forget those who are most affected. All of those suffering, whether Lebanese, Syrian or other, innocent civilians who have had loved ones die, or have themselves been maimed or injured, or are living in refugee camps. According to the U.N. more than 818,000 refugees from Syria have taken up asylum in Lebanon since Syrian Civil War began. This is just the latest in a series of conflicts that have taken up residence in Lebanon. The Syrian Civil War has been raging for over two years with no clear end in sight. What is being debated now is just how much Lebanon will be sucked into this conflict as it has in those past.
Editorial by Philip Perry