The Lebanese have been watching the conflict in neighboring Syria with a growing sense of alarm, fearing that the violence will gradually spill across their border. But the car bomb that hit central Beirut with a massive rush-hour blast Friday, the first major bombing in the capital since 2008, was a shock nonetheless.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which according to state media left at least eight people dead and another 78 wounded, numbers that seemed likely to rise. The intended target was initially unclear, but as news reports confirmed that a top security official known for his opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was killed, the possibility that the Syrian conflict had made its biggest mark on Lebanon yet began to seem very real.
“It’s almost a certainty that today’s car bombing was a direct result of the Syria crisis next door,” says Michael Weiss, the research director at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.
Wissam al-Hassan, the chief of Lebanon’s Intelligence Bureau, was leading the charge against an Assad ally who was accused of seeking to sow discord in Lebanon at Assad’s behest. Hassan’s death “will strongly implicate the Syrian regime and/or its proxies in Lebanon,” Weiss says.
The bomb struck a crowded Christian area in the center of the city that is known for its opposition to Assad. The site of the blast was reportedly near the headquarters of the March 14 alliance, a prominent opposition party, as well as a Christian group and a major Syrian bank, among other possible sites of interest. In an interview with The Guardian, Mitchell Prothero, a journalist who visited the scene, said the location made it “difficult to know who is being targeted.”
“It’s Lebanon, so anything is possible,” he added.
In the confusion, suspicions quickly turned Syria’s way. Politicians took to the airwaves to point the finger at Assad, who has faced accusations of stirring tensions in Lebanon as he scrambles to hang on to power at home. But some observers warned against a rush to judgment in a country whose problems are deep-rooted and notoriously complex. “It is dangerous to speculate at this point,” says Ceren Kenar, a Beirut-based journalist.
Analysts noted that Assad has a long history in using what Weiss calls “the not-so-cloaked” hand in influencing Lebanon’s politics. His military occupied the country until 2005, and the Assad government is widely suspected of playing a role in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister. Assad also is a key ally of Hizbullah, the Lebanon-based militia group.
“I think it shows that Lebanon is no longer a peaceful place. The Syrian conflict is going to spread there,” he says. “This will draw them in.”
At the same time, the Syrian conflict has already made its way into Lebanon in the form of rising sectarian tensions while threatening to draw in neighbors such as Turkey and Jordan. “Things that happen in Syria will of course affect what’s happening in Lebanon,” Weiss says. “I rarely quote Kofi Annan, but he was right to say that Syria is not a country that will implode. It is a country that will explode.”
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the bombing could mark a turning point for Lebanon’s relationship to Syria’s war. “I think it shows that Lebanon is no longer a peaceful place. The Syrian conflict is going to spread there,” he says. “This will draw them in.”