Syrian Civil War: Assassination of Wissam al Hassan Could Draw Lebanon in Syria Crisis


On Friday, a car bomb exploded in eastern Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The country's prime minister, Najib Mikati, said that the government was still trying to identify those behind the attack. Casualties of the bomb included at least 37 wounded and the death of Wissam al-Hassan, one of the most important intelligence officials in the country. Though the attack occured in a residential neighborhood, while parents were picking their children up from school, many in Lebanon and around the world are convinced that the attack was a politically motivated strike against al-Hassan. 

Al-Hassan opposed Syrian intervention in Lebanon, and was often aligned against Hezbollah's powerful influence in the government. As the head of the Internal Security Forces Information Branch, al-Hassan investigated a 2005 car bombing that killed a former prime minister. With this list of powerful enemies, few are supposing that al-Hassan's death was accidental, despite the lack of any responsibility claim.

The son of the prime minister slain in 2005, Saad Hariri, is now an opposition leader in Lebanon. He oppenly accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of orchestrating the murder of al-Hassan and that of his own father seven years ago. 

This attack has disasterous implications for Lebanon. Internal unrest has already been manifested in protests, gunfire, and burning tires, largely by Sunni Muslims who share the faith of the slain al-Hassan. That the attack took place in a predominately Christian area could also stir up backlash from that sect of the Lebanese population. The most serious effect of the bombing will concern the neighboring civil war in Syria. Geographically, Lebanon is almost engulfed by the larger country. Syrian rebels have accused the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon of supporting Bashar al-Assad with soldiers. Tensions escalated when the rebels claimed to have killed a Hezbollah official inside Syrian borders. Syrian refugees flood Lebanon, seeking safety from the bloody conflict. It may be following them across the border.

To those of us who are geographically removed from this region, today's violent attack seems an aberration, and only remotely attributable to the kind of intricate conspiracies that Hariri claims. 

Though more details will inevitably come to light over time, it is not at all improbably that this was indeed an attack by foreign elements. Lebanon's history is comprised of barely balanced sectarian rivalries, and the bloodshed of the Lebanese Civil War has not had even a generation to recede into memory. Syrian troops were in Lebanon for years, and the morass of loyalties and hatreds extends far beyond these two nations and their troubles to include Iran and the Palestinians. While the political fallout of this bombing remains to be seen, statesmen must do all they can to prevent the civil war in Syria from expanding into a regional battle.