Not since the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut has Lebanon been pushed so close to the edge of a precipice. But last Friday’s murder of Gen. Wissam Al-Hassan, intelligence chief of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), in a devastating car blast that killed seven others and wounded more than 80 in the mostly Christian Ashrafieh district of the capital, did just that. The similarities in circumstances between the two assassinations are astounding. Whoever stood behind this plot wanted to rattle an uneasy truce between Lebanon’s bitter political foes.
Lebanese politicians, close to or affiliated with the anti-Syria 14 March coalition, were quick to point the finger of blame at President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Head of the coalition, former prime minister and son of the slain premier Saad Hariri in addition to Druze leader Walid Jumblat both accused Syria of orchestrating the murder. Al-Hassan, a Sunni, was closely associated with the Hariri family and was credited with uncovering in August of a Syrian backed plot to carry out bombings in a Christian village through former Minister of Information and pro-Damascus Lebanese politician Michel Samaha.
Even beleaguered, and once Syria’s man in Lebanon, Prime Minister Najib Mikati admitted that there was a link between Friday’s assassination and the Samaha case, which is still being reviewed by courts. Even more, Al Hassan, 43, is believed to have proof of direct links between Samaha and senior Syrian political and intelligence aides, including top adviser to President Assad, Butheina Shaban.
Gen. Al Hassan was being groomed to head the ISF, one of at least three security forces in Lebanon with different sectarian loyalties. His death is being seen as a painful strike against the Sunnis of Lebanon, who under Hariri have become a major opposition force to Syria’s influence in the country. News reports spoke of direct links between Al Hassan and other Hariri loyalists, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is waging an 18-month war against the regime of Bashar Assad. The Syrian president had warned recently that Syria’s crisis will have tremor-like consequences on the region. Only last week UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned of a spillover effect of the Syrian crisis that could burn everything.
Syria’s involvement in Lebanon goes back few decades. The “special relationship” has often been mired by Damascus-backed killings of leading Lebanese politicians including presidents, prime ministers and MPs, among others. The 2005 Hariri killing drove the Syrian army out of Lebanon, after more than 40 years, but Damascus continued to wield influence in local Lebanese politics through close alliances with Hezbollah, some Palestinian factions and renegade Christian leaders. Gen. Al-Hassan’s murder may signal a robust come back by Syria and could reflect an attempt to export the Syrian crisis regionally.
Since the Hariri murder Lebanese factions have been polarized along pro and anti Syria fault lines. The 8 March coalition, headed by Hezbollah and allied with Christian leader Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal and other secular movements, has backed Mikati as prime minister and currently has an edge in Parliament. Hariri and his allies have called on Mikati to resign in the aftermath of the Al Hassan murder. He has submitted his resignation to President Michel Suleiman who has not accepted it until now.
Observers believe Mikati’s departure will create a dangerous political vacuum in Lebanon that could manifest itself in street violence. And there are signs that not all members of the 14 March coalition see the government’s resignation now as a good thing for Lebanon’s stability.
Lebanon has always been considered as an open stage for proxy wars involving almost every country in the region, from Israel to Syria to Iran to the Gulf States. In recent months and weeks the Syrian crisis has overshadowed Lebanese politics. Premier Mikati has been trying to implement a policy of non-interference in the Syrian issue. But recent reports have pointed to direct Hezbollah involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war; fighting along the side of the regime. The US backed Hariri has been pivoting to the FSA and the Syrian opposition. One of his party’s top aides is said to be based in Turkey liaising with the general command of the FSA.
The killing of Gen. Al Hassan is also a setback for the US, which supports the anti-Syrian 14 March coalition. Washington, through former ambassador to Beirut Jeffrey Feltman, who is now a UN envoy to the region, has kept close ties with internal Lebanese politics. The newly-formed ISF, established after the murder of Hariri, was largely trained and supplied by US and pro-US Arab intelligence services. Al Hassan was considered a patriotic Lebanese since he managed to unravel more than 35 Mossad affiliated cells in Lebanon in the past five years.
While one cannot discount an Israeli link to Al Hassan’s gruesome murder, there seems to be concord, among many Lebanese, that the crime was perpetrated by Syria. Circumstantial evidence is piling up, but whoever carried out the kill wanted Lebanon to move dangerously close to the edge of internal war. It will take a miracle to spare that country a repetition of its sad and bloody history.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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