Intelligence Analysis Report
The assassination of Wissam al-Hassan is not directly related to the Syrian uprising. It is, rather, the latest in a string of assassinations that stretch back eight years, beginning in 2004 with the attempted assassination of former minister Marwan Hamadeh and the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. These assassinations are part of the long-term struggle between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. Al-Hassan was well aware of the threat surrounding him. On Friday, the perpetrators seized their opportunity to dispatch a target that had been in their sights for a number of years.
This latest assassination is significant on several levels. 1- It clearly indicates that the Syrian regime and its allies are still powerful in Lebanon and are capable of successfully targeting high-profile and well-protected individuals.
2- Furthermore, it weakens the Lebanese security services when the need for them is greatest.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army have together managed to provide reasonable levels of national security. Moreover, the unit that al-Hassan headed had been particularly effective in the last few months, arresting former information minister Michel Samaha—one of President Assad’s closest Lebanese associates—who was caught red-handed attempting to smuggle explosives from Syria into Lebanon. The unit was also instrumental in the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri as well as cases exposing Israeli spy networks in Lebanon.
While the loss of al-Hassan is a blow to the Lebanese security network, his unit is well equipped with technology and training from external allies—particularly Western governments. Major General Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces, moved swiftly to appoint a replacement for al-Hassan, Colonel Imad Othman. While this may be an interim appointment, it means the investigations for which al-Hassan was responsible will not be derailed by his passing.
The assassination of al-Hassan has also inflamed public opinion, particularly among the Sunnis of the March 14 bloc. With Sunni-Shia tensions already running high in Lebanon, Friday’s attack once again brought them to the boiling point. The explosion in Achrafieh was immediately followed by a great outpouring of grief and anger, with a large rally held in conjunction with al-Hassan’s funeral on Sunday. Protesters and mourners condemned the bombing and called on the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati to step down.
March 14 Coalition Misses Opportunity
The March 14 opposition initially stood to gain politically from this assassination, which placed Mikati’s Hezbollah-dominated government in a very difficult position. Indeed, Prime Minister Mikati discussed his resignation with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman immediately after the blast but agreed—at the president’s behest—to remain in his post for the sake of national unity and to avoid creating a political vacuum. But the March 14 coalition mismanaged its opportunity and finds itself once again in a weakened condition.
The statement the March 14 coalition issued at the Sunday rally focused almost exclusively on the responsibility of the prime minister for al-Hassan’s assassination and called on him to resign immediately. At the time, it was quite clear that Mikati was as distressed by the killing as anyone else. The statement smacked of political opportunism and fell flat.
Events on Sunday deteriorated into violence when participants broke off from the rally in Martyrs’ Square and attempted to storm the Grand Serail—Lebanon’s government palace—clashing with internal security forces there. The attack on the Serail was called for by one of the rally’s younger leaders but subsequently denounced by March 14’s senior politicians. The coalition prefers to market itself as one of the country’s more peaceful and law-abiding factions. Nevertheless, the violence undermined March 14’s credibility, alarming political leaders both inside and outside the country.
Members of the international community and friends of March 14 were quick to speak out against the violent turn, urging calm while continuing to denounce Friday’s bombing. The swift response from foreign capitals indicates that key regional and international players remain committed to preserving Lebanon’s stability while the Syrian conflict takes center stage.
Several prominent Lebanese politicians also came out in support of the government, cautioning against the political vacuum that would result from its fall. In particular, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose party holds the balance of votes in parliament, said that blame for the attack fell squarely on the Syrian regime and should not be exploited for domestic political gain. And, notwithstanding his initial offer to President Suleiman, in the wake of Sunday’s rally, Prime Minister Mikati made clear that he resented the politicization of Friday’s tragedy and had no intention of resigning.
Al-Hassan’s assassination is part of a long-simmering conflict between the Syrian regime and its foes that has been going on for many years. The conflict is between two broad axes: one side includes Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, and the other is aligned with Saudi Arabia and the West. The pro-Assad axis indeed scored a blow with Friday’s assassination. But direct retribution is unlikely. The battle for and against the Assad regime’s survival is being fought in Syria, not Lebanon.