A drone/UAV attack on 2 January in the south of the Lebanese capital Beirut killed Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri and six other Hamas members. A day later on 3 January, at least 95 people were killed and 211 injured in two explosions in Kerman, Iran, targeting a ceremony commemorating the former leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Gen Qasem Soleimani.
- The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are likely to have carried out the strike in Beirut. Lebanese Shia movement Hizbullah, a Hamas ally, is likely to consider the development to be provocative, but not an act of war.
- Hizbullah is likely to respond to the attack but will refrain from actions that would likely provoke the IDF into a ground incursion, managing the potential for war.
- The killing of Arouri is unlikely to significantly weaken or undermine Hamas in Gaza or the West Bank (Palestinian Territories).
- No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack in Iran, which is the deadliest in Islamic Republic history. This type of attack remains rare, however, successfully targeting such a high-profile event signals an apparent erosion in the security forces capability to mitigate the terrorism threat.
- The symbolism of targeting the ceremony, the modus operandi and the indiscriminate targeting of Shia mourners all point to Islamic State (IS) as the most likely perpetrator.
The Beirut strike – impact and reactions
It is unclear how much involvement Arouri had with Hamas at the end of his life. Living in exile for 15 years, he is unlikely to have had any direct involvement in Hamas’ operations in Gaza. His death is unlikely to impair the group’s war strategy with Israel. However, he also led Hamas’s delegation in multiple rounds of reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and his death will at least partially complicate any future communication between Hamas and the PA.
Though the IDF has not confirmed that it was behind the strikes, it is likely to have carried them out. Arouri was an important symbolic target for Israel. However, Israeli government adviser Mark Regev said that “whoever did it, it must be clear that this was not an attack on the Lebanese state […] it was not even an attack on Hizbullah […] it was a surgical strike against the Hamas leadership”.
Both Hizbullah and the Lebanese government have criticised the killings. Hizbullah has called the attack a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and promised “response and punishment”. Speaking to UK national broadcaster the BBC, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib stated that his government has liaised with Hizbullah, attempting to manage the group’s planned response.
Double explosion in Kerman, Iran
The deputy governor of Kerman province declared the explosions were acts of terrorism. Local media reported that the attackers used explosive belts but state news reported that two explosive devices were planted and detonated remotely.
Iranian authorities made unevidenced claims that the US and Israel were responsible. IRGC-QF leader Gen Esmail Qaani claimed that the attackers were “sponsored” by both countries, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei vowed revenge.
Likely IS attack
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, given the modus operandi – including the possible use of suicide bombers – the targeting of a symbol of the regime and the indiscriminate targeting of Shia civilians, IS is the most likely perpetrator.
IS cells have previously attacked similar symbolic targets. The group claimed responsibility for a large-scale attack in the capital Tehran in June 2017 that targeted key symbols of Iran’s regime and in September 2018, IS militants attacked an IRGC parade in Ahvaz (Khuzestan province).
Military responses within the region
Hizbullah and the IDF have engaged in tit-for-tat clashes along the Lebanon-Israel border since the Israel-Hamas conflict began but have so far remained within the accepted “rules of engagement”. While an Israeli attack on Beirut – if confirmed – would represent a notable deviation, Hizbullah is likely to view it as a provocation, rather than an act of war. Regev’s statements, while lacking a confirmation, highlight Israel’s intention to closely manage the potential for escalation with Hizbullah.
Hizbullah is likely to increase its attacks on IDF posts along the Lebanon-Israel border, to be seen as providing an effective response to an attack on its territory. However, Hizbullah is aware that any response that would provoke an Israeli ground incursion into southern Lebanon would be broadly unpopular with the Lebanese people, particularly given the country’s difficult economic situation.
While Arouri’s targeting will impair leadership within Hamas and Hizbullah, his status in the groups is not so significant that they will be forced into an immediate response. Hizbullah is unlikely to mount any large-scale attacks on major Israeli civilian centres.
Despite the Iranian authority’s rhetoric and support of regional proxies including Hizbullah, Hamas and the Houthis, escalation is not thought to be their aim. Previous responses to similar events have included mass arrests of Sunni suspects from ethnic minority groups and airstrikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq. They are likely to respond in a similar way to the latest attack.
Further isolated attacks are likely in the coming months directed at symbolic targets associated with the regime or Shia religious sites. These will pose incidental security threats to foreign business personnel and assets. Militant groups are unlikely to have the capability to engage in a sustained campaign of attacks.
Containment under strain
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is headed to the region to bolster efforts to prevent an increasingly challenging situation from prompting an escalation towards a broader regional conflict.
Underscoring the challenge all parties have balancing military actions with counter-escalatory moves, a likely US drone strike on the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia in eastern Baghdad killed at least four fighters, including one of the group's local leaders. This marks a significant escalation in the cycle of retaliatory attacks between the US and Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria that has been going on since October.
This article is based on a research note originally published in Seerist Core. Find out more about how Seerist’s adaptive artificial intelligence combined with localised geopolitical risk expertise can help you identify, monitor and mitigate risks.