Lebanon has once again stepped back from the brink. Just before 3:00 p.m. on Friday, October 19, a car packed with the equivalent of 50 kilograms of TNT exploded in Sassine Square, Achrafieh, in the heart of Beirut’s affluent Christian district. It destroyed cars, shattered shop windows, caused significant damage to surrounding buildings, killed three people, and wounded over a hundred.
In the hours after, it emerged that one of those killed was Major General Wissam al-Hassan, head of the Information Unit of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. In addition to his prominent role in the Lebanese intelligence apparatus, al-Hassan was close to Lebanon’s anti-Assad March 14 coalition and had strong ties with the family of assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The blast, the likes of which Lebanon has not seen for over four years, and the tumult of the following days, left many fearful that Lebanon had turned the fateful corner toward internal conflict and inexorable involvement in the Syrian crisis. However, al-Hassan was swiftly replaced, the unrest that erupted over the weekend died down, and the government that appeared on the verge of collapse has regained its footing.
The Significance of the Assassination
The assassination of Wissam al-Hassan is not directly related to the Syrian uprising. It is, rather, the latest in a string of assassinations that stretch back eight years, beginning in 2004 with the attempted assassination of former minister Marwan Hamadeh and the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. These assassinations are part of the long-term struggle between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. Al-Hassan was well aware of the threat surrounding him. On Friday, the perpetrators seized their opportunity to dispatch a target that had been in their sights for a number of years.
This latest assassination is significant on several levels. It indicates that the Syrian regime is apparently still powerful in Lebanon and capable of successfully targeting high-profile and well-protected individuals. Furthermore, it weakens the Lebanese security services when the need for them is greatest.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army have together managed to provide reasonable levels of national security. Moreover, the unit that al-Hassan headed had been particularly effective in the last few months, arresting former information minister Michel Samaha—one of President Assad’s closest Lebanese associates—who was caught red-handed attempting to smuggle explosives from Syria into Lebanon. The unit was also instrumental in the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri as well as cases exposing Israeli spy networks in Lebanon.
While the loss of al-Hassan is a blow to the Lebanese security network, his unit is well equipped with technology and training from external allies—particularly Western governments. Major General Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces, moved swiftly to appoint a replacement for al-Hassan, Colonel Imad Othman. While this may be an interim appointment, it means the investigations for which al-Hassan was responsible will not be derailed by his passing.
The assassination of al-Hassan has also inflamed public opinion, particularly among the Sunnis of the March 14 bloc. With Sunni-Shia tensions already running high in Lebanon, Friday’s attack once again brought them to the boiling point. The explosion in Achrafieh was immediately followed by a great outpouring of grief and anger, with a large rally held in conjunction with al-Hassan’s funeral on Sunday. Protesters and mourners condemned the bombing and called on the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to step down.
March 14 Coalition Misses Opportunity
The March 14 opposition initially stood to gain politically from this assassination, which placed Mikati’s Hezbollah-dominated government in a very difficult position. Indeed, Prime Minister Mikati discussed his resignation with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman immediately after the blast but agreed—at the president’s behest—to remain in his post for the sake of national unity and to avoid creating a political vacuum. But the March 14 coalition mismanaged its opportunity and finds itself once again in a weakened condition.
The statement the March 14 coalition issued at the Sunday rally focused almost exclusively on the responsibility of the prime minister for al-Hassan’s assassination and called on him to resign immediately. At the time, it was quite clear that Mikati was as distressed by the killing as anyone else. The statement smacked of political opportunism and fell flat.
Events on Sunday deteriorated into violence when participants broke off from the rally in Martyrs’ Square and attempted to storm the Grand Serail—Lebanon’s government palace—clashing with internal security forces there. The attack on the Serail was called for by one of the rally’s younger leaders but subsequently denounced by March 14’s senior politicians. The coalition prefers to market itself as one of the country’s more peaceful and law-abiding factions. Nevertheless, the violence undermined March 14’s credibility, alarming political leaders both inside and outside the country.
Members of the international community and friends of March 14 were quick to speak out against the violent turn, urging calm while continuing to denounce Friday’s bombing. The swift response from foreign capitals indicates that key regional and international players remain committed to preserving Lebanon’s stability while the Syrian conflict takes center stage.
Several prominent Lebanese politicians also came out in support of the government, cautioning against the political vacuum that would result from its fall. In particular, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose party holds the balance of votes in parliament, said that blame for the attack fell squarely on the Syrian regime and should not be exploited for domestic political gain. And, notwithstanding his initial offer to President Suleiman, in the wake of Sunday’s rally, Prime Minister Mikati made clear that he resented the politicization of Friday’s tragedy and had no intention of resigning.
Over the weekend, there was considerable unrest throughout the country, continuing into Monday in some areas. By Tuesday calm had returned to most places. Political leaders of all stripes—including those of March 14—have called for a halt to violence and street protests and the return of peace and stability. Life in the capital and most parts of the country have returned to normal, with the expectation that despite the dramatic events of the past few days, the political system will absorb yet another shock and return, once more, to the precarious calm that has generally prevailed in recent years.
Al-Hassan’s assassination is part of a long-simmering conflict between the Syrian regime and its foes that has been going on for many years. The conflict is between two broad axes: one side includes Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, and the other is aligned with Saudi Arabia and the West. The pro-Assad axis indeed scored a blow with Friday’s assassination. But direct retribution is unlikely. The battle for and against the Assad regime’s survival is being fought in Syria, not Lebanon.