When the March 14 movement came to power under the premiership of Hariri ally Fouad Siniora in 2005, they beefed up the information branch, with Washington’s assistance. The Lebanese armed forces and the ISF, the national police, were the two institutions that the Bush administration sought to assist in helping the March 14 government consolidate the triumphs of the Cedar Revolution. In 2006, the U.S. started its security assistance program with the ISF getting roughly 10-20 percent of what the LAF receives; for instance, for the 2013 budget, the ISF is allocated $15 million, which is mostly for training and equipment, like vehicles, compared to $70 million for the LAF. The Lebanese army has enjoyed some successes, like defeating an armed Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, in the spring of 2007, but most significantly it showed it was incapable of protecting the capital and its citizens when Hezbollah overran it in May 2008. After Hezbollah took over the government in 2009, the army effectively came under the party of God’s control.
In contrast, the ISF has retained its independence and racked up a number of successes, most notably with the work of Wissam Eid in piecing together phone records that pointed to Hezbollah’s involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Wissam al-Hassan was part of Hariri’s security detail, and had the trust of the late prime minister’s son Saad, who has lived outside of the country for the last few years in fear of an assassination attempt on his life. One upshot, then, of the Hassan murder is that Saad is unlikely to return to Lebanon anytime soon, if ever. The absence of Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni leader will undoubtedly affect March 14’s chances at the polls next year, but Saad isn’t the only anti-Assad politician with something to fear.
On Saturday, Future TV in Lebanon reported that Ashraf Rifi had said Hassan had told him that he had uncovered 24 bomb plots against Lebanese targets. Indeed there have already been several operations against March 14 figures, like the failed April attempt on the life of Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces. In July, Hassan uncovered a bomb plot against parliamentarian Boutros Harb, and identified a Hezbollah operative as the mastermind.
Perhaps most significantly, in August Hassan arrested Assad ally and former Lebanese minister of information Michel Samaha, who confessed to “planning terrorist attacks in Lebanon at Syrian orders.” One of Samaha’s projects allegedly included a plot to assassinate the Maronite patriarch Beshara al-Rahi, which was to be blamed on Sunni jihadists, and thereby incite sectarian conflict between the Christian and Sunni communities. On Friday, Rifi said that Hassan “was targeted because of Samaha’s case.” However, Hassan was killed not just because of what he had done in the past, but because of what he was likely to do in the future—roll up Syria and Hezbollah terrorism operations, protect Lebanese politicians as well as the Lebanese state, and prevent it from falling into a war like the one that engulfed it from 1975-1990 and killed more than 150,000.
One of the curiosities of the Syrian conflict is that even after a year of warfare it has barely managed to cross the border into Lebanon in any significant fashion. There has been sporadic fighting between Alawite Assad loyalists and Sunnis in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, and Hezbollah has sent fighters and rockets against the Free Syrian Army, which threatens in turn to take the fight to Hezbollah strongholds. But for all the concern among Lebanese politicians, analysts and journalists that the Syrian conflict would eventually take a heavy toll on Lebanon, the country has been surprisingly quiet, up until now. However, what Wissam al-Hassan’s death shows is that Assad had long ago opened the gates of hell on Lebanon, but someone else was pushing on that door from the other side to keep those furies and demons from unleashing chaos. Now he’s gone.
Assad has now entered a new phase. The Obama administration seemed to have lent a sympathetic ear to Assad’s story that they shared the same enemy—al Qaeda and affiliated Sunni jihadists. And thus the White House was predisposed to see all the terrorist attacks in the Levant as the work of Sunni fanatics. This attack suggests that Assad believes the ruse is no longer necessary, or adequate. Now he has moved to direct threats, for his project is transparent.
A campaign of terror in Lebanon, or better yet sectarian warfare there, will so alarm the international community, especially the Sunni Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the United States, that they will have no choice but to petition the arsonist for relief from the inferno. For peace in Lebanon, Assad is going to charge a steep price. The Obama administration says that Assad is finished, that it’s only a matter of time before he falls, but he’s gambling that he can make them see things his way, and toss him a life preserver.
With the White House’s track record, why wouldn’t Assad give it a shot, since the only power capable of stopping him has sat itself down on the sidelines to look on with a self-imposed helplessness? After all, Assad shelled a NATO ally across the Syrian border in Turkey and the White House did nothing. When he downed a Turkish jet, the administration took sides against Ankara. So what if Wissam al-Hassan was also an American ally, leading from the front in the battle against Assad, Hezbollah and its Iranian patron? Assad’s betting this doesn’t matter too much to the White House.
An Assassination in Beirut
Leading from the front against Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran, Wissam al-Hassan was an American ally.