Syrian Civil War Comes to Beirut
It appears that President Bashar Assad of Syria is up to his old tricks; assassinating Lebanese leaders who oppose him.
A gigantic car bomb exploded in a largely Christian neighborhood on Friday killing at least 8 people and wounding dozens. The target of the attack appeared to be Maj. Gen Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces. It was General Hassan who exposed the role of a prominent pro-Syrian Lebanese politician in numerous bombings, and was a relentless investigator in the Hariri assassination case.
Hassan was renowned for uncovering Hezbollah’s involvement in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which led to the indictments of four Hezbollah operatives by the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Before the bombing, Hassan had served as Rafiq al-Hariri’s personal security adviser.
A 15-foot-deep crater and other scenes of devastation at the site of Friday’s bombing revived memories of the years following Hariri’s assassination, which set in motion a wave of killings that kept the country on edge until Hezbollah seized control of Beirut’s streets in 2008 and went on to secure dominance in the government.
Most of the anti-Syrian politicians who accused it of carrying out the assassination of Hassan linked the attack to a sting operation in August that exposed a plot by a close ally of Assad’s to mount a bombing campaign against Sunnis allied with Syria’s rebels.
Former information minister Michel Samahah was charged in the plot along with one of Assad’s top security advisers, Gen. Ali Mamluk, after Hassan recruited an informer who recorded Samahah’s conversations outlining the plan to assassinate leading Sunnis in a string of bombings.
“Wissam al-Hassan was a very important man in Lebanese politics, he was an important man in the great divide splitting the country, and he was an important man in the police work that has uncovered many sensitive things,” said Mohammed Chatah, an adviser to Hariri. “One cannot begin to understand this assassination except against that background, and his closeness to the Hariri family.”
Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the UN investigation revealed that not only was Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah the primary plotters in the crime, but that Assad was behind the spate of other assassinations of nationalist politicians and journalists in Lebanon. It is extremely unhealthy for a Lebanese leader to openly criticize or oppose the Syrian president, which is why Hariri's son, Saad, a former prime minister until ousted in a Hezbollah coup, has been living in Paris since he was forced out.
"No victors, no vanquished" is the Lebanese political mantra. That kind of thinking has kept an uneasy peace since the end of the civil war 20 years ago. But the Syrian civil war is threatening to upend the equilibrium in Lebanon as Assad stokes the fire of civil unrest for his own purposes.