The assassination of security chief Wisam al-Hassan on October 19 2012 was the worst attack on a government official in Lebanon since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri (see BBC report). Lebanese opposition accuses the Syrian government of having a hand in both murders, as the uprising in Syria threatens to spill over the border into its politically and religiously fractious neighbor.
Why Was Wisam al-Hassan Important?
Head of the powerful Information Branch of Lebanese intelligence services, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hasan was a man who knew where the bodies were buried. He was at the center of the spy game in the Middle East’s most divided country, and deeply entangled in Lebanon’s messy politics.
More than 20 years after Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1989), political affiliation in the country still rests on religious identity and one’s relationship to the Syrian regime, which has dominated Lebanon for most of the past three decades. Just about every public position in Lebanon is closely scrutinized and contested by Lebanon’s many religious and political groups.
Hassan was a member of the Sunni community and considered close to the opposition leader Saad al Hariri – son of the slain former prime minister and the most powerful Sunni politician. Like Hariri, Hassan was an outspoken opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon. This pitted him against Hezbollah, a Shiite party and armed militia backed by Syria and Iran, and the leading force in the governing coalition.
There was a degree of pragmatism in Hassan’s work, says Lebanese analyst Elias Muhanna, writing in the New York Times. Hassan won respect for uncovering Israel’s spy network, in coordination with Hezbollah. He was credited for mediation between the Hariri family and Hezbollah, the arch rivals of Lebanese politics whose antagonism embodies the growing Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East.
Hassan’s Link to the Syrian Crisis
However, Hassan was also rumored to have played a role in supplying weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army next door, a fractious guerilla group fighting the troops loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad (and setting up shop in northern Lebanon). Although never proven, many Lebanese Shiites naturally suspected that a Sunni intelligence chief would not pass a chance to deliver a blow to the Syrian regime.
Shortly before his murder, Hassan led a security operation which looks to have played a key part in his undoing. In August 2012, special forces arrested former government minister Michel Samaha, a Christian politician allied to the Syrian regime. Samaha was caught with bomb making material, and charged with conspiracy to launch a series of bombings inside Lebanon to destabilize the country.
Evidence collected by Hassan’s men linked Samaha to senior Syrian intelligence officials, effectively accusing Syria of trying to export its domestic crisis into Lebanon.
Was Syria Behind the Murder?
We might never know for sure, even though the car bombing that killed Hassan bore all the hallmarks of the assassinations that had targeted Syrian opponents in Lebanon in recent years.
But perceptions are equally important. Sunnis, a vast majority of whom are sympathetic to Syrian rebels, saw the assassination as a direct attack on their community and immediately blamed Syria and its local allies. Protesters in Beirut demanded the resignation of the Hezbollah-backed government, and clashes erupted between Sunni and pro-Assad Alawite gunmen in the northern city of Tripoli.
Hassan’s murder may not have triggered a civil war but it certainly deepened the hostility between Sunnis and Shiites, and raised the fears that the Syrian crisis will eventually escalate into a wider regional war.
Read about the impact of Syrian uprising on Lebanon.Go to Current Situation in the Middle East