10.20.12

Does the Assassination of Wissam al-Hassan Reopen a Bloody Chapter of Lebanon’s Past?

Demonstrators took to the streets of Lebanon one day after a bomb killed eight, including a high-profile al-Assad foe. Mike Giglio on the chaos the country faces—and why many suspect Syria is really behind the blast.

The last time Lebanon suffered an attack that shook the country on the scale of Friday’s bombing in the capital came early in 2005, when Rafiq Hariri, the influential former prime minister, was assassinated in another massive blast. Then, outrage over Hariri’s death triggered protests that helped drive out the Syrian troops that had occupied Lebanon for nearly three decades, a dramatic step in the country’s struggle to free itself from its powerful neighbor’s grip. Now, the blast that killed at least eight people in central Beirut on Friday—including an intelligence chief who had made himself into perhaps the Syrian government’s top Lebanese foe—seemed to show that the Syrian hand was reaching deep into Lebanon again.

Following a night in which enraged demonstrators took to the streets in some parts of Lebanon to burn tires in protest of the intelligence chief’s death, reports from Lebanon on Saturday said that the country’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, had offered to resign, a move that one Lebanese official warned would “plunge the country into the unknown.”

The prospect of Mikati’s resignation seemed to recede as the day wore on, according to Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper—though by the end of the day, Mikati had announced that his cabinet would resign once a caretaker government was formed. But many analysts feared that an attempt by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reassert influence over his neighbor as he struggles to hang onto power at home was well underway—and that it could threaten to reopen a bloody chapter of Lebanon’s recent past. “The fear is that Lebanon might succumb to another civil war, and that it’s well within the modus operandi of Assad to use that as leverage for staying in power,” said Michael Weiss, research director of the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign-policy think tank in London. “His main export is and always has been violence and destabilizing the neighborhood.”

At a press conference following an emergency Cabinet meeting on Saturday, according to the Associated Press, Mikati linked the bombing directly to the Syrian crisis, painting it as retaliation for an investigation by the intelligence chief into a Lebanese ally of Assad.

In recent weeks, as Assad continues his long-running fight against an armed opposition challenging his rule even in Syria’s largest cities, Turkey has moved troops to its border with Syria and responded to errant shells from Syrian forces with artillery fire of its own. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, meanwhile, confirmed that the U.S. has sent troops to Jordan to prepare for a possible escalation on Jordan’s border with Syria. But many observers worry that the country most vulnerable to spillover from the Syrian conflict is Lebanon, where Assad has been pulling strings for years.

The assassination of such a high-profile security official is a sign to some Lebanese of how unstable their country remains. “To be able to kill this person, who knew that he was under threat, and who was very careful and a top security man, shows how deeply the attackers infiltrated. And it was such a huge bomb. It’s unbelievable,” said Marwan Maalouf, a Lebanese human-rights lawyer. “His death is a very big thing. What will happen next, no one knows.”

Wissam al-Hassan was the head of Lebanon’s internal security bureau and one of the highest-profile anti-Syrian government officials in the country. A former security chief to assassinated former prime minister Hariri, Hassan played a key role in investigating his death—and ultimately built a case against Hizbullah, the militia group with deep ties to Assad that is now part of the Lebanese government. (Hizbullah has always denied any connection to the blast.) Hassan’s anti-Assad profile rose higher still in August, when he led the charge against a prominent Lebanese politician, Michel Samaha, whom Hassan accused to trying to destabilize Lebanon on orders from Assad.

The arrest was jarring in a country where outside influence is seldom challenged so directly. “The case Hassan had built against Samaha was highly unusual in Lebanon, where bigwigs are rarely taken on,” Beirut-based journalist Martin Chulov wrote in the Guardian on Saturday. “Those such as Samaha with powerful connections are virtually untouchable.”

The allegations against Samaha fell in line with the kind of meddling many Lebanese have feared from Assad. Samaha stood accused of bringing explosives into the country and plotting to set off bombs in an effort to raise sectarian tensions. The assassination of the man who arrested him led to immediate suspicions that Assad was behind the attack.

Mikati echoed suspicions of Syrian involvement in his remarks on Saturday. "I don't want to prejudge the investigation, but in fact we cannot separate yesterday's crime from the revelation of the explosions that could have happened," he said.

Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri’s son, offered a blunt assessment of the bombing in an interview with CNN. “We have always thought Bashar al-Assad has killed Rafiq Hariri, and today he has also killed Wissam al-Hassan,” he said.

No one has claimed responsibility for Friday’s bombing. In a statement from its information minister, the Syrian government quickly condemned the attack as the work of terrorists. “Such attacks are condemned and unjustifiable wherever they happen,” the minister, Omran al-Zoubi, told the country’s state news agency.

But Assad’s influence has long helped to fuel the kind of sectarian tensions that drove Lebanon’s bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990 and the violent flare-ups that gripped the country afterward until a sense of tenuous calm settled in over the last three years. Along with Iran, Assad is a key ally to Hizbullah, the Shiite militia group, and his government has been tied to Shiite politicians in Lebanon who support the Syrian agenda. Both Hassan and Hariri, the assassinated former prime minister, hailed from Sunni-dominated political alliances that oppose Assad.

On Saturday, it was reported that Hassan will be buried near Hariri in central Beirut.

Now sectarian issues are featuring in Syria’s own conflict, as Assad is increasingly forced to rely on his Shiite-aligned Alawite base against a rebellion dominated by the country’s Sunni majority. Fears that these tensions will spread into Lebanon have gradually been realized in the form of sporadic violence and a series of kidnappings of Sunni Syrians in Lebanon by members of powerful Shiite clans. Members of Hizbullah, meanwhile, have lately been buried in Lebanon after dying in Syria, where they are believed to have been fighting for Assad.

Maalouf, the Lebanese human-rights lawyer, notes that many Lebanese consider Hassan a national hero who was working to assert the power of the state—he is known for prosecuting people across Lebanon’s political spectrum. Maalouf was concerned that sectarian discussions were already featuring prominently in the news of Hassan’s death. “This is a guy who served his country and worked to stop terrorism, and ultimately gave his life for his country” he said. “But the country is so divided that he isn’t considered a martyr by everyone.”