In Lebanon, everyone loses

The latest blast to rock Beirut could be a desperate hurrah from the Assad government – but were they behind it?

Firefighters extinguish fire at the scene of an explosion in Ashrafieh, central Beirut
A car bomb exploded in a street in central Beirut during rush hour on October 19, killing at least eight people [REUTERS]

“In this war, things get confused…”

The line is from Apocalypse Now, but the sentiment is universal. Just as the Vietnam War inevitably spilled over into neighbouring countries, causing massive collateral damage along the way, Syria’s civil war has spilled across its borders, with Lebanon inevitably the main victim.

It’s easy and perhaps logical to assign responsibility for the bombing to the Syrian government and/or Hezbollah. After all, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hasan, the bomb’s ostensible target, was a well known foe of the Assad government who had investigated several assassinations and bombings plots that strongly implicated the Syrian government.

If Assad was willing to “break Lebanon over [the] head” of Rafiq Hariri, as he is alleged to have threatened the former prime minister shortly before the latter’s assassination in a massive car bombing, there is little reason to imagine that he would miss an opportunity to take out one of his main Lebanese foes today, especially in the context of a life or death struggle for survival. Indeed, such bombings have been an all-too routine occurrence [AR] in Beirut in the half dozen years since Hariri’s murder, and most have allegedly been tied one way or another to the Syrian government.

Hezbollah’s next move?

But things are rarely as simple as they seem to be. For his part, Wassim was in fact suspected by some members of the UN team that investigated Hariri’s assassination of being involved in some way with the plot. It’s not impossible to imagine he had acted at some point as a double agent, putting him in a position to compromise not merely the Syrians but senior Lebanese figures as well.

 Blast in Lebanon kills top security official

Assad would have little to lose by taking out one of his most dangerous opponents in Lebanon, even and perhaps especially if at some point the victim had been working for him. But the situation is much more complicated when we move to Hezbollah. The group has long been suspected of involvement in Hariri’s assassination; arrest warrants were issued by the UN tribunal investigating the assassination for four members of the movement last year. Not surprisingly, none of the suspects have been arrested, while Hezbollah threatened to “cut off the hand” of anyone who tried to execute the warrants.

But Hezbollah’s strategic position has changed dramatically in the last year. Whatever their ideological vision, the movement has an extensive intelligence and analysis network and is extremely calculating and cautious in its planning and pursuance of its interests. The senior leadership has to be extremely worried that the Assad regime’s days are numbered even as it has continued to give various types of support to its Syrian patron.

It’s one thing to shoot mortars or rockets into Syria from the Beqaa Valley against rebel positions inside Syria or even to send some fighters across the border. It’s quite another in a situation where the survival chances of the regime are, short term, not that good, and long term, very low, to participate in the assassination of a high ranking official of a government that your party controls. One would have to imagine that Hezbollah is already working on positioning itself in a post-Assad and even post-Baathist Lebanon-Syrian order. Viewed from this perspective, there are many reasons why Hezbollah would not perceive itself as benefitting from al-Hasan’s assassination, especially when the movement would be the obvious suspect in the killing.

Once we begin to think this way, Israel comes into the picture as an external actor that could benefit from his murder, especially if the blame were placed at Hezbollah’s feet. The movement has already lost much support among those outside its core Shia base. The discovery of any serious evidence of involvement in al-Hasan’s murder would seriously erode its political position within Lebanon, something that would, of course, greatly benefit Israel. And this fact alone makes it impossible to dismiss the possibility of the murder being an Israeli false flag operation.

Everyone loses

Ultimately, everyone loses if this bombing heralds a wider expansion of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon. Even in the best of times Beirut is a city on edge. Before I left in mid-October, many Lebanese friends expressed the fear that the war would spill over but were too weary from all the troubles of the last few years to think beyond how to plan a quick exit from Beirut and even Lebanon if things suddenly got out of control.

 Lebanon blast stirs fears of return to violence

This would be a particular tragic twist to the Arab uprisings, whose genealogy can be traced in good measure to the “Cedar Spring” that emerged in the wake of Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, which spontaneously produced the kind of internet-driven, multi-generational and confessional mass protest movement that would become the model – both in its early successes (forcing Syria officially out of Lebanon) and long-term failures to produce real change in the system of governance – for the Arab Spring of 2010-12.

Given its position as a major transit hub for diplomats, intelligence services, journalists, international agencies, activists, scholars and many other international actors now involved in either monitoring, mediating or fighting in the civil war, a return to sectarian violence in Beirut would ultimately serve the interests of those who want to ensure that violence and hatred rather than democracy, pluralism and compromise define the political landscape of the Arab world. Sadly, the list of forces with such an agenda has changed little since Hariri was assassinated, meaning that all the usual suspects – Syria, Hezbollah, Israel, and their backers must be considered potential suspects in the latest and most likely not last attack to rattle Beirut. And the losers, as always, will be the Lebanese people caught in the midst of the shrapnel.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.