European Council on Foreign Relations

An assassination in Lebanon

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I have just returned from Lebanon, a country once again shaking as the threat of violent spillover emanating from Syria grows stronger. On Friday, Wissam al-Hassan, head of intelligence in the country's Internal Security Forces (ISF), was killed by a car bomb in Beirut. The killing of al-Hassan, a powerful and close ally of the anti-Assad March 14 alliance who was seen as being personally responsible for the recent arrest of Michel Samaha, a former minister charged with plotting attacks in Lebanon on Assad's behalf, has thrust the country into a new period of crisis.

With Lebanon deeply polarised between the March 14 alliance and the Hezbollah-dominated pro-Assad March 8 alliance that now controls the government the attack has stirred up tensions tearing at the country's seams. As we documented in a recent report these divisions have become ever more entrenched over recent months, raising fears that the country could suffer its own descent into internal conflict. Increasingly this divide has taken on a sectarian edge as the Sunni-dominated March 14 has condemned the positioning of the Shiite Hezbollah movement. Both sides are now, it seems, providing material support to their respective allies in Syria.

Many Lebanese observers have pinned the blame for Friday's attack on Assad, particularly given memories of a series of assassinations against anti-Syrian figures including former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 in which Syrian complicity has long been suspected. These opponents accuse Assad of wanting to sow instability in Lebanon as a means of diverting pressure away from his own struggle, while also wanting to punish al-Hassan for the arrest of Samaha - and thereby place fear in the minds of other opponents. It is also possible that Assad is trying to spark wider discord in Lebanon in a bid to draw Hezbollah more fully into a conflict. Notwithstanding, recent reports of increased material support in Syria, Hezbollah's support for Assad has not been as substantial as many would have expected. Moreover, within Lebanon the movement has been showing some restraint, accepting unprecedented push-back from its opponents, apparently out of concern that a Lebanese implosion would threaten its national interest. It would certainly be in Assad's favour to see Hezbollah take a more assertive approach.

Following the attack the government of Najib Mikati has come under enormous pressure. Condemned for its inability to stand up to Syria's nefarious influence March 14 immediately demanded that it step down. For Mikati, himself a Sunni despite his government's March 8 affiliation, the challenge has been compounded by the fact that he is also seeking to maintain personal support among the Sunni population. He promptly offered his resignation - only to be pressed by President Michel Suleiman to stay in office in order to avoid a dangerous vacuum.

However, al-Hassan's funeral in Beirut yesterday pointed to the dangers at hand. Whipped up by March 14 speakers who turned the event into a political rally demanding the downfall of the government, hundreds of protestors attempted to storm the prime minister's office. Violent clashes with police forces ensued. Although the violence did not last long, and March 14 leaders quickly reversed their tone to urge calm and restraint, the incident highlights the febrile environment hanging over the country. Given ongoing violence in Tripoli and Sunni protests across the country following Friday's attack, tensions are very much on edge.

Even so, it appears that March 14 misplayed its hand by allowing the funeral to become so politicised and violent - and this may actually be good for short term stability. For many the fiery rhetoric and violent action of a few hundred supporters acted as a disincentive to throw their support behind the protest movement and mobilise action to bring down the government. The Lebanese are well aware of the risks at hand and the protest only numbered in the tens of thousands as opposed to the hundreds of thousands who came out onto the streets when Rafiq Hariri was killed. It was also notable that Saad Hariri was absent - he remains abroad out of safety concerns - highlighting a lack of strong Sunni leadership. March 14's weak response has pushed back the immediate prospect of a national show-down challenging Hezbollah's grip on the government. Instead the push for national unity and dialogue pushed by Suleiman and Mikati - as well as by European diplomats in Beirut - may still have legs.

For the moment the Mikati and March 8 political order remains in place. However, it remains uncertain how long it can last. Given recent events, the pressure for it to step down is only likely to grow stronger, particularly given that the opposition feel that the current policy effectively gives Hezbollah room to dictate a pro-Assad leaning. The collapse of the government would be very worrying, precipitating a political vacuum and a new struggle for control which could well turn violent. Even without government collapse, however, al-Hassan's assassination, expanding tensions and clashes point to a state of increased armed mobilisation, particularly among the Sunni base, now gripping the country.

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