Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East and the region’s capital for assassinations and attempted political slayings. The latest of which in this bloody saga targeted Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces. Hassan, who was tapped to become the Head of the ISF at the end of this year, had been on Damascus’ radar for quite some time. His organization was tasked with bringing to justice those responsible for a string of assassinations from 2005 to 2008, including that of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a bomb blast in February 2005. A bold and what some would describe as courageous endeavor, given that the prime suspects in this assassination are the Shiite group Hezbollah and by extension the Bashar al-Assad regime. Hezbollah is both the best armed militia and since its political toppling of the March 14 Movement, headed by Rafik’s son Saad, the party in charge of Lebanon. As Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported today, he was also seen as a key figure supporting the rebels in Syria. Thus, Hassan’s focus on arresting those within the movement and his staunch support of the Western-backed March 14 Movement and Syria’s rebels put him in direct confrontation with both Hezbollah and Damascus.
Hassan was fully aware of this, reportedly sending his wife and children to Paris in an effort to avoid having them become casualties of an assassination attempt. His latest affront to the Syrian regime was the arrest of former Information Minister, Michel Samaha on August 9. The former minister was viewed as an untouchable figure in Lebanese politics, with long ties to both Damascus and its allies in Lebanon. Samaha’s crime, to which he confessed under interrogation, was transferring explosives from Syria into Lebanon in order to carry out bombings in North Lebanon. The focus of these bombings, according to the confession, was the area of Akkar, a hotbed of support for the Free Syrian Army. Samaha’s untouchable status and the failure of Bashar al-Assad to previously export widespread instability to Lebanon, due to his arrest, was surely the last straw for Damascus.
Hassan was taken out as many have in Lebanon, in a slaying which would be characterized as more gang-land than political. Today, October 19, a car bomb ripped through Sassine Square in central Beirut, killing eight and injuring another seventy-eight. It was the first such attack since 2008, leaving this Christian neighborhood witness to the highest profile assassination since that of Rafik Hariri. As with any crucial event in Lebanon, the country’s politicians were quick to make their views known and to condemn the killing. Saad Hariri was asked by Future Television, a station linked to his Future Movement political party, as to who was responsible for the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan. The former Prime Minister, who is in self-imposed exile given the all too apparent threat of assassination, replied “Bashar Hafez al-Assad”. Hariri’s emphasising of the full name of Syria’s embattled President underscores the severity of the assassination for both the Future Movement and the entire March 14 Alliance. Under Hassan the ISF had become a strong extension of the Movement and by extension the Sunni community, in a country where various security service establishments are tied to political patrons and confessional groups, undertaking arrests and providing as a vessel for judicial persecutions of one’s enemies. The institution was one of the most important tools the Lebanon’s opposition had to deal blows to Hezbollah and its allies in government. Now, with this assassination, the loss of Hassan puts the entire organization at risk, not to mention the entire country. Any predecessor, who according to analysts may come from inside the organization, will be intimidated with the prospect of assassination by Damascus and its allies. Furthermore, as Hassan was well trusted, the Future Movement patriarch it is too early to tell if Hassan’s replacement will continue the cordial relationship with Lebanon’s primary opposition figure. This is not to mention Hassan’s role as an important figure within his own community. As Elias Muhanna, a professor at Brown University stated, Hassan was seen as a “protector of Sunni interests and an integral part of March 14.”
Saad was not the only high profile figure ready to out Assad for his probable role in Hassan’s assassination. Phalange MP Madim Gemayel, whose headquarters was 200 meters away from the blast site, blamed Assad, stating that it was “a political blast par excellence.” Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, a right leaning Christian political party, did not mix words when he accused the Syrian government, putting it plainly that Hassan was targeted “because he arrested Samaha.” At this time Al Arabiya is also reporting that the March 14 Alliance has called upon Prime Minister Nijab Mikati, an ally of Hezbollah, to step down over the blast. Politicians within the March 14 Alliance were not the only ones to express outrage at today’s events. Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and the representative of the country’s 300,000 Druze, told Al Jazeera that “Assad destroyed Syria and wants to destroy Lebanon.” Although Jumblatt is part of Hezbollah’s March 8 ruling coalition, his views regarding Damascus are well known and the political kingmaker (and slippery alliance shifter) has become a vocal supporter of the uprising next door. Analyst are now debating whether Jumblatt, who’s party holds seven of the March 8 alliance’s sixty-eight seats in parliament, will leave the governing coalition. At this point though it seems doubtful that Jumblatt will leave, given the fact that if the Progressive Socialist Party was to remove itself from the coalition it would remain with only sixty-one seats to the March 14th’s 60 seats. Overall, Jumblatt’s political maneuvers have been meant to keep Lebanon’s political system stable all the while providing critiques over what can only be narrowly defined as Lebanon’s “external affairs”.
The Lebanese street has already expressed its contempt with today’s events, Tripoli, in the north, is seeing shootouts between Sunni Islamist groups and Alawite militias. The shootout in Lebanon’s second biggest city highlights its importance as a crucial supply route to Syrian rebels, east of the Akkar, the area where Samaha was supposed to plant bombs on behalf of Assad. In Beirut supporters of March 14 have blocked roads to the rest of the country and have undertaken the same actions in the south and in the Beqaa Valley, the latter of which borders Syria. At this time according to Rula Amin, armed groups are preparing for a possible conflict between Lebanon’s various confessional groups, the Paris of the Middle East is on fire again.
It may be too early to tell, but today’s events have surely brought Lebanon into the Syrian conflict, a troubling development. The vocal response to the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan by March 14 Alliance leaders underscores the hostility between pro and anti-Assad factions, but more importantly between Lebanon’s various confessional groups. With Sunni-Shiite cleavages growing across the region and in particular now within the Levant, Lebanon’s future is on shaky ground. Divisions over the uprising in Syria have largely exacerbated these confessional fault lines in Lebanon, but they are not the only cause of this friction. Tensions have been growing since Hezbollah’s brief armed takeover of Beirut in 2008 and exacerbated by what the Sunni community, particularly its poorer segments in Tripoli, have seen as governmental neglect and offensive behavior. Security services aligned with Hezbollah are now famous for arresting those Sunnis tied to the uprising in Syria, which has not won them many allies across the confessional divide. The army, once hailed as the unifier of the nation and the bulwark against the dissolution of the Lebanese state, has been implicated in the assassination of a Sunni cleric who was a staunch supporter of the Free Syrian Army and member of the March 14 movement. These developments in their individual capacities are disturbing, combined with the car bombing today they represent a slide toward perpetual conflict. It might be time for the West to re-think its policy towards Syria before the spillover worsens.