Major General Wissam al-Hassan was a marked man years before he was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Beirut last Friday.
In Lebanon, military and security services are split by allegiances to different parties and ethnic groups. Al-Hassan’s loyalties were to the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition and the Hariri clan.
But his murder was not just a settling of accounts for the campaign he waged in the Internal Security Forces against Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian elements. It was also a signal from Syria’s direction that despite the turmoil of civil war, it has not lost its power to influence events across the border, using explosives when the need arises.
The assassination has led to violent demonstrations on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and other Lebanese cities and towns, and calls for the resignation of the government of prime minister Najib Miqati, over which Hizbollah maintains control.
The fates of Syria and Lebanon were intertwined long before the latest developments. Syrian military units were forced to leave Lebanon by the international community following the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, but have kept a firm grip on the country’s affairs through a number of Lebanese power groups.
Chief among them is Hizbollah, which has built its huge arsenal from Syrian and Iranian supplies.
As chaos has engulfed Syria, the balance of power has shifted, with Hizbollah coming to the aid of the security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. According to many reports, it has sent fighters to take part in the bloody repression of the anti-Assad demonstrations. Meanwhile, members of the March 14 opposition group have been active in shipping arms to various opposition factions fighting Assad’s forces in Syria.
The pressure is being felt not just by the Assad regime but also by its chief allies, Tehran and Hizbollah, who are anxious to safeguard the dominance of a Shia axis from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Assad’s fall would mean the loss of a crucial link.
Six years since the Second Lebanon War in which much of Lebanon’s infrastructure was devastated, many in Lebanon are blaming Hizbollah for unnecessarily provoking Israel. Meanwhile, Hizbollah has not fired even one bullet over the Israeli border.
Most Israeli analysts believe that Hizbollah is more focused now on bolstering its political stature and would not risk that with another military confrontation — but the loss of their key Syrian ally could change their calculations.