The Cedar Retribution: The Long Struggle for the Levant, from Hariri to Hassan
Posted by The Editors
This post is by Anthony Elghossain, an attorney at a global law firm based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Page Lebanon.
On October 19, a bomb tore through Achrafieh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood and upscale gathering place in Beirut. Initially, many Lebanese believed the bomb was a scare tactic or a senseless consequence of a long-anticipated Syrian “spillover.” But investigators soon announced that Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan was among the dead. He’d been the target; Achrafieh was merely the price.
And then Lebanon exploded. Angry youths took to the streets. At Hassan’s funeral in downtown Beirut, ardent members of the March 14 coalition attempted a quixotic coup. Meanwhile, armed bands performed another of their almost ritual bloodlettings. Although the state has since quelled major fighting, Beirut and other flashpoints across the country remain tense.
The assassination wasn’t surprising. Hassan’s relationships, politics, communal affiliation, and security endeavors made him a prime target. A Sunni with close ties to the Hariri family, Hassan headed the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) information branch. While transforming the information branch into an effective operation, Hassan cooperated with the U.S., France, and Arab states in Lebanon and beyond.
Of course, immediate causes are evident. Hassan had recently uncovered an alleged Syrian plot to destabilize Lebanon. Furthermore, in recent months, Hassan had reportedly joined international efforts—not all of them public—to bolster Syrian rebels.
But this killing means more.
At its heart, Hassan’s assassination was another salvo in the long struggle for the Levant. For more than a decade, rival factions—each aligning Lebanese and Syrian actors alongside foreign sponsors—have sought to control Beirut. Lebanon’s capital has long been an open arena; with the onset the Syrian conflict, these rivals are competing for Damascus too.
The scenes have included Beirut, foreign capitals, the media war, licit and illicit business, and Lebanon’s far-flung diaspora. The Assad regime and allies like Hezbollah have routinely used violence to silence opponents, eliminate liabilities, deplete pools of knowledge, and create political space. They probably killed Hassan because, in the complicated tapestry of the Levant, he tied many threads together:
No Justice, No Peace: Syria, Hezbollah, and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon
In 2005, a massive explosion killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri and more than twenty others. The killing rang across the region and altered Lebanese politics drastically. At his apex, Hariri had personified the convergence of Saudi and Syrian interests in Lebanon. With their concurrent support, he leveraged his talent, extensive contacts, and massive resources to drive the reconstruction of downtown Beirut and guide Lebanon’s erratic economic recovery. In a typically Levantine compromise, he and others ceded security and foreign policy to the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus and Hezbollah. Despite rampant failures and the subjugation of free minded citizens, post-war Lebanon enjoyed a balance of sorts.
After “inheriting Syria” from his father, Bashar al-Assad strained the system. During decades of rule, the elder Assad carefully manipulated and exploited factions and communities to position Syria, and himself, as an indispensable arbiter in Beirut. Less adept at this game, Bashar clashed with Lebanese elites—a “forest of fathers”—including Hariri. Syrian maneuvers to extend then-President Emile Lahoud’s term caused a crisis. Among others, Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt resisted Syrian’s bribes, enticements, and threats. Bashar reportedly humiliated Hariri at a private meeting in Damascus. Hariri, who had been resisting certain policies, began considering a more overt stance against the Syrian occupation. And then he was killed.
Instead of stifling dissent, the assassination triggered the Cedar Revolution. Millions of Lebanese—mostly Christians, Sunnis, and Druze—demanded an end to Syrian hegemony. A domestic counter-elite soon forged a broad consensus against Syria’s continued presence in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the U.S. and France led international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops. In turn, the U.N. established an international investigative body, which has since transferred jurisdiction to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). These initiatives were to end the killing and, eventually, the culture of impunity that pervades the Middle East.
But the killing has continued. Assassins have targeted several proponents of Lebanese sovereignty and security officials. The ISF’s information branch has played a significant role. First, by participating in investigations, the ISF has ensured that successive Lebanese governments—including those beholden to Syria or Hezbollah—have pursued justice with more than words. Second, the ISF offers a broad in-country presence, local knowledge, inroads with informants, more freedom of movement, and a degree of domestic legitimacy that the STL would otherwise lack. Third, ISF officers have claimed ownership of the investigation, providing needed dedication and ingenuity in spite of innumerable challenges.
ISF officers like Hassan, Lieutenant Colonel Samer Shehadeh, and Captain Wissam Eid used telecommunications date to help identify the assassination team and a network of collaborators. Without clearing the Syrian regime and other suspects, ISF and STL investigators implicated Hezbollah members in the killing. (At one point, Hassan may have been a suspect.) Perhaps coincidentally, assassins have targeted all three men. Shehadeh survived and now lives in Canada. Hassan and Eid are dead.
The Empire Strikes Back: In a (Suspended) Syrian Spillover, Hassan Paid for Disrupting a Conspiracy to Destabilize Lebanon
Hassan didn’t confine himself to the Hariri investigation. With security assistance from the West and Arab states, his information branch greatly improved its ability to gather, sift, and analyze information. In recent years, the information branch uncovered several Israeli spy rings, including one that featured a high-ranking member of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party allied with Hezbollah. (Conspiratorial analysts have argued that Israel killed Hassan to halt the ISF’s progress and to ensnare Hezbollah in domestic unrest.)
In August, Hassan uncovered an alleged plot to destabilize Lebanon. Rooted in the Syrian civil war, the conspiracy ostensibly involved Michel Samaha, a former Lebanese cabinet minister, who confessed to smuggling explosives from Syria into Lebanon. The conspirators were to bomb various, mostly Christian, areas of Lebanon to sow discord and—less plausibly—to cow minorities into supporting the Assad regime as a bulwark against Sunnis. The information branch arrested Samaha, who remains in custody, and indicted a top Assad aide in absentia.
The arrest seemingly exposed the Assad regime’s loss of influence in Beirut. The former minister is now a bit player, which indicated that few of Syria’s allies were willing to execute the alleged scheme. As the March 14 coalition paraded around the arrest while statesmen celebrated Lebanon’s “disassociation” from the Syria, Hezbollah and a lesser collection of pawns and mouthpieces remained silent.
Achrafieh was the reply. Quite simply, the assassination has again demonstrated that those who challenge Syria and Hezbollah risk their lives. More profoundly, the assassination has reminded the Lebanese that their country’s stability depends on the goodwill of others.
The Battle for Beirut: Hassan’s Death Highlights the Levant’s Inability to Institutionalize
The STL controversy and Lebanon’s debate on the Syrian crisis have unfolded alongside the battle for Beirut’s institutions, another vital part of the broader struggle for the Levant. Decades of concurrent Syrian and Israeli occupations, negligible security assistance, and institutional gerrymandering gutted rump institutions that survived the Lebanese Civil War.
Beholden or amenable to particular factions and foreign patrons, with fragmented officer corps, each security service pursues its own agenda. Moreover, Lebanese officials must also contend with deficient trust within their each organizations.
Against that backdrop, Hassan carefully built the information branch into a counterweight to Lebanese military intelligence and the General Security Service, which are more amenable to Syria and Hezbollah. To do so, Hassan and his superiors cooperated with international partners, particularly the U.S. and France. Under a 2007 Letter of Agreement on Law Enforcement, for instance, the ISF has trained and equipped thousands of officers, explored new community policing and other techniques, and developed its infrastructure and communications.
Even so, Lebanese institutions remain politicized. While security assistance is critical to Lebanon’s long term stability, the inability to extend assistance to all institutions has had a perverse effect. As the ISF has acquired competence, thereby challenging the security monopoly of agencies closer to Syria and Hezbollah, Lebanese institutional rivalries have intensified. Once relatively harmless, the ISF is now a target and part of the politicized environment.
Because of deficient trust and professionalism, officials have continued to operate personally— through back-channels, in private offices, and with a closed circle of counterparts. In turn, Lebanese institutions remain weak. “Tsars” and trusted officials become essential. Thus, besides their obvious consequences, assassinations of men like Hassan, Eid, and LAF General Francois Hajj disrupt operational networks, undermine trust, plant broader uncertainty in the ranks, and erase stores of knowledge that have remained outside of the institutional setting.
The threads have come loose.