Earlier today, a car bomb struck the convoy of former Lebanese ambassador to the United States Mohammad Chatah in central Beirut. The explosion killed Chatah and at least four others. The blast, estimated at 110 pounds of explosive, also wounded 71. Chatah, who was also a former finance minister in Lebanon, was a close political ally of the late assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Guardian notes:
“In October last year, Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Internal Security Forces intelligence branch, was also killed by a car bomb. He was buried several hundred metres from the scene of Friday’s blast in a shrine alongside former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the patriarch of the western-leaning 14 March alliance whose assassination in February 2005 sparked a new era of instability in post-civil war Lebanon.” (The Guardian, December 27)
Today’s event is just the latest in a quickly escalating series of attacks and reprisals this year in what is best characterized as a proxy conflict in the Levant. The sectarian violence now engulfing Syria and much of Iraq (while also spreading to Lebanon) has pitted Saudi-aligned Sunni extremist groups with al-Qaeda affiliations against Iranian-supported Shi’a extremist group Hezbollah. Just hours before he was assassinated, Chatah tweeted a warning about Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, writing “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.” Chatah, a vocal critic of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, was 62 years old and a leader in the Movement of the Future, an alliance of Sunni politicians in Lebanon. Nabih Bulos of the Los Angeles Times reported:
The death of Mohamad Chatah, an economist and diplomat, was confirmed by the Future Movement, a political faction with which Chatah had close ties. He was traveling by convoy at the time of the midmorning blast, and security officials said they believed that he had been specifically targeted.
The attack drew widespread condemnation. Prime Minister Najib Mikati called Chatah a moderate “who believed in dialogue and the language of reason.” There was an outpouring of dismay on social media, on which Chatah had been active.
The former Lebanese ambassador to the United States was a senior advisor to members of the Saudi-backed Future Movement. He was also a confidant of successive Lebanese leaders, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who himself was assassinated under eerily similar circumstances in February 2005, when his motorcade was hit by a massive bomb.” (Los Angeles Times, December 27)
Nicholas Blanford of The Christian Science Monitor noted Chatah’s history of campaigning against Syrian involvement in Lebanese politics and characterized the loss of the moderate former ambassador in the context of political assassinations in Lebanon throughout the past decade:
“Lebanon has been rocked this year by several large car bomb attacks, mainly targeting Sunni and Shiite areas in what is regarded as spillover from neighboring Syria’s grueling civil war. But the car bomb killing of Mohammed Chatah, who was widely regarded as a political moderate, appeared more in line with a wave of assassinations of anti-Syrian political figures in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who was regarded as a threat to Syrian influence in Lebanon.” (Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, December 27)
The Future Movement is a political alliance in Lebanon comprised of Sunni politicians, led by Saad Hiriri. Saad is the son of assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, killed in a massive blast as his motorcade passed through Beirut on February 14, 2005. Reports on the investigation into the death have emerged that have pointed fingers at Hezbollah having carried out the assassination on Rafiq Hariri, a claim which Hezbollah has repeatedly denied. The movement is part of a so-called March 14 Alliance, which is composed of Christian and Sunni Lebanese politicians. The March 14 Alliance is named after the Cedar Revolution which erupted in Lebanon in 2005 in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
While accusations about responsibility for the attack are already being leveled by those loyal to former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria has denied complicity in the attack. Iloudnan.info has already posted statements accusing those responsible for previous attacks on Lebanese politicians as being responsible for the assassination of Chatah today:
“The signatories of the message do not hide their fingerprints. They will continue on the criminal path and will insist on dragging Lebanon into the abyss of discord, , as long as there is in Lebanon some who provide cover for those crimes, who ask to bury the heads in the sand and who justify the proliferation of weapons and the rise of the armed groups at the expense of the State and its institutions.” (Iloubnan.info, December 27)
Interestingly, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades released a video earlier today and claimed that Hassan al-Laqqis was not killed on December 4th in an explosives attack near his home. Hezbollah had originally accused Israel of having carried out the attack. A masked leader of the Brigades stated that al-Laqqis was in fact meeting with Iranian officials in the embassy on November 19 when the Abdullah Azzam Brigades conducting twin bombing attacks against the embassy:
“‘We announce to the Sunnis in the Levant and in general, and in Lebanon in particular, that Hizbullah military commander Hassan Hollo al-Laqqis was not assassinated by the Jews (Israel)… God himself killed him, through the two martyrs in their attack on the Iranian embassy,’ Sheikh Sirajeddin Zureikat said.
The recording was posted on the radical cleric’s YouTube account late on Thursday and redistributed on jihadist forums.
He was referring to a twin suicide attack on November 19 that targeted the Iranian embassy in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a stronghold of Hizbullah.” (Naharnet, December 27)
The recent conflict pitting Shi’a groups loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah against Sunni groups reportedly funded by the Saudi Royal Family has resulted in the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut on November 19 and the subsequent killing of Hezbollah senior military commander Hassan al-Laqqis on December 4. Attacks on Hezbollah-controlled checkpoints in the Beqaa Valley have become more commonplace and it is possible that today’s attack on Chatah is a reprisal for recent Saudi-backed Sunni extremist attacks on Hezbollah and other proxies of the Assad regime in Damascus. On December 17, a car bomb targeted a Hezbollah military base in the Beqaa Valley (just 20 kilometers from the Syrian border) and heightened the already escalated tensions.
The attack on former Ambassador Chatah today is likely to escalate the conflict. With Saudi money pouring into Syrian opposition groups, many of them affiliated with or pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Shi’a Hezbollah will continue to receive money, weapons, and other support from Iran and the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Given Syria’s history of intervention in Lebanon and Hezbollah domination of areas such as the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon will likely observe a sharp increase in attacks and reprisals between the two warring factions. As open warfare in Syria has festered over the past several years, many analysts have assessed that as the conflict rages on the chances of it spreading and destabilizing neighboring governments significantly increases. Flights of large groups of refugees continue to put pressure on leaders such as King Abdullah II in Jordan, a noted moderate with a reputation as an arbiter in disputes throughout the Arab world.
As violence escalates throughout the Levant, Sunni groups, often funded by the Saudi royal family, are the likely benefactors. Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq has resulted in thousands of deaths, especially since last summer. When you juxtapose the security concerns of the governments in Amman and Beirut with those of the governments in Damascus, Tel Aviv, and Baghdad, the threat of instability and its global effects comes into starker relief. As the rate of attacks in Lebanon steadily increases and reprisals follow, the threat of instability spreading further to the neighboring states increases. Wider regional instability becomes more likely with each attack in Lebanon.
Links are posted below to references for further study of the topic.
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst
Latest posts by Eric Jones (see all)
- Overwatch: the Foreign Intrigue Podcast, Episode 2 (United States Presidential Candidates and Foreign Policy) - 15 February 2016
- Overwatch: the Foreign Intrigue Podcast, Episode 1 (Foreign Policy and the US Presidential Election) - 8 February 2016
- Central Asia at a Crossroads: Introduction and Overview - 30 December 2015