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Who Killed Wissam al-Hassan?

Syrian President Assad's "strategy of tension" in Lebanon.

by
Jonathan Spyer

Bio

October 24, 2012 - 10:01 am
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A commander of the force, Samir Shehade, was the target of a similar attempt in 2006. He survived the attack and now lives in Canada.

Al-Hassan, when he was murdered, was heading an investigation into the activities of  Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese minister of information and ally of Syria who was arrested in August on suspicion of “planning terror attacks in Lebanon at Syrian orders.”

Thus Syria had a clear motive for the attack, and the way in which it was carried out fits with the known Syrian modus operandi.

The Syrian regime understands the psychology of terror very well, and an additional element should be noted when considering Assad’s probable motivation for renewing his murder campaign in Lebanon. Many of the killings of prominent anti-Assad figures in the 2005-2008 period had no immediate policy objective.

But they died because Assad wanted to create and spread an atmosphere of fear and dread among his opponents; a sense that they were within reach, that Damascus was watching them, and that it would not be denied.

European terror groups used to call such an approach the “strategy of tension.” The Assad regime has been a master of this approach, which it used to leverage eventual policy gains in a variety of contexts. It appears that even now, as it fights for its life and gradually loses ground to the rebellion against it, it retains its skills in this arena.

The killing of Wissam al-Hassan is not the first instance of the Syrian civil war traversing the border with Lebanon. Hizballah forces are fully engaged in the effort of the Iran-led regional bloc to keep Assad in place. As Assad’s regime sheds manpower, so his Shia Lebanese allies grow in importance. Hizballah fighters are currently fighting in the area close to the border in the Homs governate. The movement has been shelling the Free Syrian Army stronghold of Qusayr in recent days.

More broadly, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has witnessed periodic and bloody clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad along the sectarian fault line, since the rebellion against the Syrian dictator began.

Yet still, the killing of Wissam al-Hassan, almost certainly by the Syrian regime, probably with Hizballah’s help, represents a new departure. It heralds the return of Assad’s “strategy of tension” to Lebanon.

Once the outburst of initial anger is spent, Assad and Hizballah’s opponents are likely to bide their time and wait, rather than allow Damascus to dictate the pace of events.

But one may be sure that a careful ledger is being kept.

On the day that Assad grows sufficiently weak that a local challenge to his allies in Lebanon looks like having a chance of success, there will be many in the country willing and eager to avenge the blood of the slain general.

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Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).
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