After Beirut Bombing of Wissan al-Hassan, a Wary Calm in Lebanon

A bombing 10 days ago set religious tensions flaring—but Lebanon remains reluctant to get drawn into Syria’s conflict.

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The force of the blast mashed two cars together and flung them on their roofs. Scores of others remain crumpled and blackened nearby, and even on adjacent roads, vehicles with smashed windscreens and shrapnel-gouged bodies bear the scars of the explosion.

The power of the bomb that killed Lebanese security boss Brigadier General Wissan al-Hassan is obvious when you stand in the middle of Rue 57 in the upscale Christian district of Ashrafieh. The facades of two six-story buildings have been shorn off, allowing a glimpse into wrecked apartments. Several other buildings have been severely damaged.

Ten days on from the Oct. 19 bombing, Lebanese security experts are still painstakingly collecting evidence and placing it in large bags under two white tarpaulins drawn across a courtyard, where they are trying also to assemble what remains of a car. After The Daily Beast arrived at the scene and started to take notes, skittish intelligence officials decided to haul this correspondent in for three hours of questioning.

The assassination of Hassan has left not only intelligence officials on edge but also ordinary Lebanese, who fear that this assassination could prove as shattering as the 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, this time sucking them into the sectarian mayhem of neighboring Syria.

A spymaster who was no friend of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Hassan—a Sunni and close friend of Hariri—was a plump and friendly man. He saw his job as ensuring that Lebanon was not drawn into the battles raging across the border. In August, he arrested a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, accusing him of planning a Syrian-sponsored bombing campaign in Lebanon. He also led the investigation that implicated Damascus in the 2005 bombing that killed Hariri.

“The mood is fatalistic,” says a former government adviser. “We are pretty sure we're going to get drawn in but we don’t know when or how and the rich are trying to work out how they can get to sit in bomb shelters with their Chanel bags.”

The Lebanese turned the killing of Hariri into an opportunity to reduce Syria’s hold on Lebanon by forcing Damascus to end its formal 29-year military occupation. The assassination sparked massive popular protest that cut across sectarian lines and sparked the rise of an Arab Spring–like progressive coalition, the March 14 alliance, opposed to Syrian influence.

Hassan’s security agency grew out of the events of 2005 and was set up to provide Lebanon with a professional intelligence wing that wasn’t in the pocket of Damascus and could act more neutrally when it came to Lebanese sectarian politics.

Syria seemingly miscalculated with the 2005 killing. Might Hassan’s assassination be a miscalculation by the Assad regime, too—one that will weaken Syrian influence in a Lebanon that Damascus still views as a client? Or will it intimidate the country into greater obedience, fearful that disobedience will provoke a whirlwind?

The death of Hassan is, by and large, being taken here as a warning from the Assad regime. Most Lebanese hint that they have no doubt who was behind the attack, even if the bomb turns out to have been planted by Lebanese actors—possibly members of Hezbollah, Syria’s Shiite ally in the country, which was implicated in the Hariri bombing. And they aren’t holding their breath for the formal FBI-assisted probe to unveil the guilty parties. The intelligence officers at the bomb scene do not demur from this assessment.

Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated prime minister and leader of the Future Movement—a key party in the March 14 alliance—hasn’t hesitated to accuse Assad and he’s called for the resignation of the Hezbollah-dominated government of Najib Mikati, arguing that it has failed to protect Lebanon. Mikati’s formal policy of “disassociation” from the vicious Syrian civil war is a failure, he says.

In the initial days after Hassan’s killing, it looked like Lebanon might indeed be headed for a repeat of 2005—mass protests and a further weakening of Syrian power and of Hezbollah, or alternatively, conflict between Lebanon’s major religious sects.

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Sunni and Christian opposition supporters protested in several cities and hundreds broke off from Hassan’s Oct. 21 funeral to try to storm Mikati’s offices. There was an exchange of gunfire between anti-Assad Sunni gunmen and pro-Assad Shiites in central Beirut and fighting between the two sects in the coastal city of Tripoli killed seven and wounded dozens.

Quick action by the increasingly professional Lebanese Army put a dampener on the clashes. And away from sectarian conflict, a popular groundswell for the government to move aside has failed to materialize. Protesters are manning a tent city outside the prime minister’s office near Martyr’s Square but during the day it boasts only a handful of demonstrators and in the evening about a hundred or so.

On Sunday, a few hundred opposition protesters turned up—a fraction of the numbers that powered the 2005 agitation.

“We will remain here until the government resigns,” says Dr. Khaled Zahraman, a Future Movement lawmaker from the town of Akkan. “This is a long-term campaign. This government is a Syrian government and not a Lebanese one.”

But it may be a longer campaign than Zahraman has bargained for. The Lebanese have the ebullient habit of moving on with their everyday lives quickly after disaster strikes and they seem keen to move on rapidly from the assassination of Hassan, if only temporarily.

At first the bombing prompted fear that the country was about to be dragged back to the civil war of 1975 to 1990 that left 120,000 Lebanese dead and a quarter of the population wounded. Grim reminders of that brutal conflict are dotted around Beirut—war-damaged buildings still incongruously poke out here and there from a new city of gleaming glass and modern architecture.

“Once they realized the bombing wasn’t the start of an immediate round of indiscriminate violence, you could sense the relief,” says a U.N. diplomat. “They don’t want to go back to the future. They just want the present—even if it isn’t perfect.”

Lebanon’s economy now is in the dumps. The Beirut souk, an upscale mall wedged between Martyr’s Square and a bright blue Mediterranean, was virtually empty over the Eid holiday. A government report published yesterday said that most Lebanese can’t afford to save and two-thirds are finding it hard to meet their everyday needs.

Even so, in the turbulent Middle East of the Arab Spring Lebanon has been an oasis of calm and relative affluence. “They are not in the mood to risk anything,” says a former adviser to Saad Hariri. “I think the Future Movement has overplayed its hand. People are not convinced that replacing Mikati will solve anything. And they don’t see what you replace the policy of disassociation with when it comes to Syria—that is, if you don’t want to hasten us being sucked in. We feel, of course, that we are living on borrowed time, but why speed things up?”