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For example, Syrian occupying forces were withdrawn from Lebanon following the car bomb murder of Rafik Hariri, in 2005, a murder for which Damascus’s Hizballah allies have now been accused by UN investigators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.
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.