Hassan’s death leaves Lebanon more uncertain

Mourning the deaths of Wissam al-Hassan and Rafik Hariri. Photo from Gregg Carlstrom on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence

Mourning the deaths of Wissam al-Hassan and Rafik Hariri. Photo from Gregg Carlstrom on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence

The car-bombing that killed intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last week has shaken Lebanon. Shortly beforehand, Hassan had warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would try to spread his country’s sectarian conflict, and neighbouring Lebanon had already been experiencing gun battles and running clashes. We asked our Middle East expert, Emile Hokayem, what Hassan’s death means for his homeland’s immediate future.

Q. What were Wissam al-Hassan’s major achievements as head of the intelligence branch of the Internal Security Force (ISF) and why is his death so significant?
A. He had close links with the anti-Assad coalition known as March 14. In fact, he served as the head of the security detail of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. He also led the ISF investigation into Hariri’s assassination, which uncovered connections between the alleged assassins and Hizbullah, Lebanon’s powerful Shia movement.

On Hassan’s watch, the ISF also dismantled spy networks working for Israel. He had built a competent and sophisticated service, which pro-Assad elements saw as a threat.

The timing and circumstances of his killing are significant. Lebanon has been experiencing ripple effects from the Syrian civil war from the start. More recently, Hassan’s force arrested Michel Samaha, a former minister close to Assad, for allegedly planning a series of bombings to foment sectarian strife. The Beirut bombing is likely to be linked to this incident, as the Lebanese president [Michel Suleiman] and prime minister [Najib Mikati] mentioned in their speeches at Hassan’s funeral this week.

Hassan, as a Sunni security figure aligned with the anti-Assad faction, became a lightning rod for Assad allies, who accused him of helping Syrian rebels.

Q. Most, apart from Hizbullah, blame Syria for the attack as a way to inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon. How significantly has it soured relations between the anti-Syrian March 14 Movement and the Hizbullah-dominated March 8 Alliance?
A. Tensions and emotions are at an all-time high. The Hassan hit must be seen in the context of a series of targeted assassinations of anti-Assad political and media figures since 2004. Ever since the Hariri assassination and the forced withdrawal of Syrian occupation troops in 2005, two visions for Lebanon have continued to clash. But the idealism of each these visions has waned as sectarianism and political wrangling have increased. The conflict in Syria only compounds existing divisions.

Still, Lebanon is not on the verge of civil war. The country’s major factions are unwilling to go down this road because history shows that in Lebanon political gains and losses are marginal even when the social and other costs are massive. Hizbullah knows that the current political configuration [in which it and its allies dominate the government] is the best it can hope to achieve. Its opponents understand that the military balance of power is not in their favour.

We should be more concerned about an accidental escalation, and potential miscalculations and misinterpretations. The security services’ ability to contain and manage small security incidents is eroding. The army is overstretched and distrusted by significant segments of the population, similar to the way the ISF is distrusted by other segments. The competence of the president, the prime minister and the security chiefs is continually being tested.

Q. After Hassan’s assassination Prime Minister Najib Mikati offered his resignation, but President Michel Suleiman refused to accept it. Was this a good thing, given that Mikati’s government includes Syrian ally Hizbullah? 
A. The anti-Assad coalition was vocal in its criticism of Mikati even before the assassination. Mikati, who came to power in 2011 in a soft ‘coup’ against the March 14 leader Saad Hariri, is conducting a policy of ‘dissociation’ from Syria. He is attempting to extract and shelter Lebanon from Syria’s growing problems. This is a tall order in a country split down the middle between groups hoping for Assad’s demise, and others working to help him survive, most notably Hizbullah.

For its part, the anti-Assad coalition is firmly on the side of the Syrian revolutionaries. One of the slogans displayed at the funeral of Hassan read: ‘Two countries, one revolution.’ Hizbullah has been involved in supporting Assad politically and practically. There is no denying that Assad mischief in Lebanon is ongoing.

The funeral of Hassan could have been an opportunity to gently push for a government that better represents the country. But the anti-Assad coalition came across as more opportunistic and angry than organised and visionary in the way it pushed for Mikati’s resignation – for instance in its misguided efforts to unseat him by storming his governmental offices. This has cost the coalition dearly.

Many Lebanese citizens, fresh from their long civil war, are worried about being dragged into the Syria maelstrom. They see Suleiman and Mikati as level-headed and risk-averse, and support them for that reason.

Q.  A recent tweet said that Hassan’s assassination meant Saad Hariri – a former PM and son of the assassinated leader Rafik Hariri – can never return to Lebanon …
A. Saad Hariri has been outside Lebanon ever since he was ousted in January 2011, mainly for security reasons. In light of Hassan’s assassination, this is understandable. Still, his long absence has been met with ridicule and contempt. As the leader of the Sunni community, his presence in Beirut is necessary to reassure and guide Sunnis, as well as to mobilise his constituency ahead of the planned 2013 legislative elections.

Significant segments of the Sunni community perceive the state to be dominated by its enemies. Tense relations with the security forces, especially the military, and the sense that Mikati – who for a long time enjoyed good relations with Assad and Hizbullah – usurped power, contribute to that perception. As a result, radicalisation is progressing within the community, though still at a manageable level. Hariri’s leadership is sorely needed to fix these broken relationships.

Q.  What comes next?
A. After offering his resignation, which the president rejected, Mikati said he would be keen to form a national unity government. He received the support of all the major powers, but his political position is precarious. Is he serious about a government reshuffle? Alone, a national unity government won’t be the fix for Lebanon’s endemic problems, but it may buy more time as Syria continues to unravel.


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