General Wissam al-Hassan, head of the information branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), was murdered in a car bombing in the Beirut neighborhood of Achrafieh on Friday, October 19.
The killing of al-Hassan was almost certainly carried out by the Syrian regime or elements associated with it. It has been met with a furious response by the Sunni community in Lebanon, who sympathize overwhelmingly with the cause of the Syrian rebels.
Yet currently, the indications are that the Syrian civil war is not yet set to erupt with full force into Lebanon.
Rather, the strength of the Hizballah movement looks sufficient for now to make the Lebanese opponents of Assad continue to bide their time. But if the Assad regime continues to grow weaker, a moment will come when the balance of forces in Lebanon will have shifted sufficiently to make a head on confrontation with Hizballah feasible. At that point, fighting in Lebanon is likely between Hizballah and its Sunni opponents.
Why have opponents of the Assad regime asserted so swiftly and with such confidence that Damascus was behind the murder of General al-Hassan?
There are a number of reasons. First, terror killings of this kind have long been an unmistakable item in the toolbox of options maintained by the Assad regime for preserving its influence and terrorizing its opponents in Lebanon.
For example, Syrian occupying forces were withdrawn from Lebanon following the car bomb murder of Rafik Hariri, in 2005, a murder for which Damascus’s Hizballah allies have now been accused by UN investigators of having been responsible.
A wave of assassinations targeting anti-Assad politicians, security officials, and journalists followed the withdrawal. The list of those who met a similar fate to that suffered by Wissam al-Hassan is long. Gebran Tueni, Samir Kassir, Georges Hawi, Antoine Ghanem, Wissam Eid, and Pierre Amine Gemayel — anti-Syrian figures all — met similar deaths in the 2005-2008 period.
Then, following the triumph of Hizballah in the mini-civil war of May, 2008, these killings stopped as abruptly as they started. The campaign of terror had worked and so could be wound down.
Secondly, Al-Hassan was part of the only branch of the Lebanese security services which is independent of the influence of Hizballah and Damascus. While Military Intelligence and the Surete Generale are thoroughly penetrated by these elements, the ISF is associated with the opposition, pro-Western March 14 movement.
This has made membership in the top levels of the ISF a hazardous position to occupy in recent years. Wissam Eid, whose name is noted above, was a senior ISF officer who was investigating Hizballah’s role in the Hariri killing when he was killed.