The first reports of the bomb outrage in central Beirut on October 19 appeared to indicate a terrorist outrage perhaps with multiple casualties. But, within a few hours it was clear that it was an assassination. The victim of the attack was Major General Wissam al Hassan, head of intelligence of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF).
A survivor of previous assassination attempts, General al-Hassan played a pivotal role over the past decade in tackling the many security crises that have afflicted Lebanon. A former head of security for the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, himself assassinated in February 2005, al-Hassan led the investigation into that assassination and a string of others that targeted members of the Sunni dominated and pro-Western March 14 coalition. These investigations supported the work of the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) established by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1757 in 2007. The STL’s work has led to the indictment of four members of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement, the main party of Lebanon’s Shia Muslims. But under General al-Hassan’s direction the ISF also addressed security threats from other directions, notably apprehending several Lebanese accused of spying for Israel in recent years.
Sectarian and political divisions in Lebanon, never far below the surface, have inevitably been affected by the political storm that has swept neighbouring Syria over the past eighteen months. For more than forty years Syria has been dominated by the Assad clan, first Hafez al-Assad from 1971 to 2010, and since then his son Bashar, now the incumbent President. The Assad family are Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, who although comprising only twelve per cent of the Syrian population, have ruled in conjunction with Christian and Druze minorities, effectively disenfranchising the 70 per cent Sunni Muslim majority.
While Bashar al-Assad gloated at the revolt against Egypt's then President Mubarak and claimed his own anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism made Syria immune from the Arab Spring, his hubris has led to the bitterest civil war affecting any Arab country for decades. Inevitably, this conflict has impacted on neighbouring Lebanon which has only in recent years recovered from the fratricidal civil war of 1975 – 1990. Ever since then the Christian community has been divided between pro and anti-Syrian camps, with most Shia supporting Syria and most Sunni looking towards Saudi Arabia and the West.
These toxic divisions have inevitably been strained further by the popular revolt in Syria against the Assad regime. In August this year General al-Hassan arrested Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese information minister close to Syria's president, who was charged with importing explosives into Lebanon at the behest of the Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk. This stunning development underlined General al-Hassan’s determination to eliminate security threats from all directions, and was inevitably a major blow to Syrian intelligence and an embarrassing revelation of its ruthlessness not only towards its own civilians but also to those of neighbouring Lebanon.
In the light of al-Hassan’s assassination and the probability of Syrian involvement, Lebanon’s sectarian and political divides have become gaping wounds. There have been demonstrations in Beirut’s suburbs, and more seriously, almost daily shootings and sectarian killings in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli. The northern city, although overwhelmingly Sunni, contains Lebanon’s only significant Alawite community. In the past year there have been sporadic shootouts between the Sunni of the Bab al-Tabanneh quarter and the Alawites in the Jebel Mohsen area that have claimed more than thirty lives. In the past few days since al-Hassan’s funeral, there has been almost daily shooting interspersed with fragile ceasefires.
But it is not just on the streets of Tripoli that the assassination has led to greater division. The Sunni led March 14 coalition has called openly for the resignation of the current government led by Prime Minister Najib Miqati which relies heavily on support from Shia and pro-Syrian parties. President Michel Suleiman has been trying to sustain it and search for a broader national coalition.
These efforts are not likely to be successful and the March 14 supporters will be further emboldened by a US State department announcement in Washington on October 23 that it would welcome a new government in Lebanon. The move, seemingly out of step with the EU - whose foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton was in Beirut that same day - will be a major challenge for Hezbollah. A government favoured by Washington is not likely to find support with the friends of an embattled Damascus regime. The danger is rising that Lebanon is gradually being drawn into the Syrian imbroglio.
Lord Williams was United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon 2008-11.
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