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An Assassination in Beirut

Lee Smith

Yesterday a car bomb in Beirut killed a senior Lebanese security chief along with seven others, while wounding hundreds in Ashrafiyeh, a busy neighborhood in Christian-majority East Beirut. The target, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, was close to former prime minister Saad Hariri and his late father, Rafik Hariri. Yesterday evening, Hariri supporters, mostly Sunnis, closed down roads and burned tires in protest against the assassins, almost certainly tied to the Syrian regime and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

The bombing and murder of Hassan marks a return to the period of 2005-2008, when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his allies embarked on a campaign of violence, including bombings in residential areas and assassinations of Lebanese figures opposed to the regime in Damascus. That era kicked off with the Feb 14, 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and ended only after Hezbollah’s May 2008 siege of Beirut and the Chouf mountains. This conflict led to the Doha accords, which paved the way for the Shiite militia to take control of the government. The current campaign may turn out to be even bloodier, for the stakes are higher—to ensure not only the continuation of Hezbollah’s hegemony, but also the Syrian regime’s survival. Assad is counting on the international community, led by the White House, to rescue him from the twenty-month long uprising that seeks to bring his regime down on his head.

Wissam al-Hassan was chief of the internal security force’s information branch, and the third top officer of the unit to be targeted. The first was Samir Shehade, who survived a bombing in 2006 and left the country. Next was Wissam Eid, whose number-crunching detective work on the Hariri assassination provided the international investigative team with several leads. Eid survived two attempts on his life before he was killed in January 2008. Hassan himself had been threatened repeatedly. Just this week, an editorial in a pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper identified Hassan as an enemy, likely foreshadowing his murder. Damascus’s contempt for Hassan was out in the open. Several years ago, the regime issued “arrest warrants” for its Lebanese enemies, the compilation of which was essentially a black list naming those who had crossed Assad and his allies and were likely to pay the price. Along with a number of March 14 political figures, Hassan’s name was also on the list as was that of his boss, ISF chief Ashraf Rifi.

ISF officers are prime targets because the information branch is the only one of the four security outfits inside Lebanon that has been effective in fighting terror—i.e., Hezbollah and Syria. The state security is simply weak and inefficient, while military Intelligence and general security have proved complicit with Hezbollah and Syria. Indeed, it seems that the latter service may bear some responsibility for Hassan’s death. He had just returned from abroad the day before the bombing, passing through the airport, which is controlled by general security, headed by Hezbollah ally, Abbas Ibrahim. Some speculate that general security alerted Hassan’s hunters, who had him followed and killed, a modus operandi matching the murders of parliamentarians Gebran Tueni (killed in 2005) and Antoine Ghanem (killed in 2007), both of them Syrian regime opponents slain shortly after their re-entry into Lebanon.

When the March 14 movement came to power under the premiership of Hariri ally Fouad Siniora in 2005, they beefed up the information branch, with Washington’s assistance. The Lebanese armed forces and the ISF, the national police, were the two institutions that the Bush administration sought to assist in helping the March 14 government consolidate the triumphs of the Cedar Revolution. In 2006, the U.S. started its security assistance program with the ISF getting roughly 10-20 percent of what the LAF receives; for instance, for the 2013 budget, the ISF is allocated $15 million, which is mostly for training and equipment, like vehicles, compared to $70 million for the LAF. The Lebanese army has enjoyed some successes, like defeating an armed Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, in the spring of 2007, but most significantly it showed it was incapable of protecting the capital and its citizens when Hezbollah overran it in May 2008. After Hezbollah took over the government in 2009, the army effectively came under the party of God’s control.

In contrast, the ISF has retained its independence and racked up a number of successes, most notably with the work of Wissam Eid in piecing together phone records that pointed to Hezbollah’s involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Wissam al-Hassan was part of Hariri’s security detail, and had the trust of the late prime minister’s son Saad, who has lived outside of the country for the last few years in fear of an assassination attempt on his life. One upshot, then, of the Hassan murder is that Saad is unlikely to return to Lebanon anytime soon, if ever. The absence of Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni leader will undoubtedly affect March 14’s chances at the polls next year, but Saad isn’t the only anti-Assad politician with something to fear.

On Saturday, Future TV in Lebanon reported that Ashraf Rifi had said Hassan had told him that he had uncovered 24 bomb plots against Lebanese targets. Indeed there have already been several operations against March 14 figures, like the failed April attempt on the life of Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces. In July, Hassan uncovered a bomb plot against parliamentarian Boutros Harb, and identified a Hezbollah operative as the mastermind.

Perhaps most significantly, in August Hassan arrested Assad ally and former Lebanese minister of information Michel Samaha, who confessed to “planning terrorist attacks in Lebanon at Syrian orders.” One of Samaha’s projects allegedly included a plot to assassinate the Maronite patriarch Beshara al-Rahi, which was to be blamed on Sunni jihadists, and thereby incite sectarian conflict between the Christian and Sunni communities. On Friday, Rifi said that Hassan “was targeted because of Samaha’s case.” However, Hassan was killed not just because of what he had done in the past, but because of what he was likely to do in the future—roll up Syria and Hezbollah terrorism operations, protect Lebanese politicians as well as the Lebanese state, and prevent it from falling into a war like the one that engulfed it from 1975-1990 and killed more than 150,000.

One of the curiosities of the Syrian conflict is that even after a year of warfare it has barely managed to cross the border into Lebanon in any significant fashion. There has been sporadic fighting between Alawite Assad loyalists and Sunnis in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, and Hezbollah has sent fighters and rockets against the Free Syrian Army, which threatens in turn to take the fight to Hezbollah strongholds.

But for all the concern among Lebanese politicians, analysts and journalists that the Syrian conflict would eventually take a heavy toll on Lebanon, the country has been surprisingly quiet, up until now. However, what Wissam al-Hassan’s death shows is that Assad had long ago opened the gates of hell on Lebanon, but someone else was pushing on that door from the other side to keep those furies and demons from unleashing chaos. Now he’s gone.

Assad has now entered a new phase. The Obama administration seemed to have lent a sympathetic ear to Assad’s story that they shared the same enemy—al Qaeda and affiliated Sunni jihadists. And thus the White House was predisposed to see all the terrorist attacks in the Levant as the work of Sunni fanatics. This attack suggests that Assad believes the ruse is no longer necessary, or adequate. Now he has moved to direct threats, for his project is transparent.

A campaign of terror in Lebanon, or better yet sectarian warfare there, will so alarm the international community, especially the Sunni Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the United States, that they will have no choice but to petition the arsonist for relief from the inferno. For peace in Lebanon, Assad is going to charge a steep price. The Obama administration says that Assad is finished, that it’s only a matter of time before he falls, but he’s gambling that he can make them see things his way, and toss him a life preserver.

With the White House’s track record, why wouldn’t Assad give it a shot, since the only power capable of stopping him has sat itself down on the sidelines to look on with a self-imposed helplessness? After all, Assad shelled a NATO ally across the Syrian border in Turkey and the White House did nothing. When he downed a Turkish jet, the administration took sides against Ankara. So what if Wissam al-Hassan was also an American ally, leading from the front in the battle against Assad, Hezbollah and its Iranian patron? Assad’s betting this doesn’t matter too much to the White House.

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