A bombing rattles Lebanon

Yusef Khalil analyzes the impact of the assassination of a Lebanese security chief.

A rescue worker carries a child away from the scene of the car bomb attack in BeirutA rescue worker carries a child away from the scene of the car bomb attack in Beirut

THE CAR bomb that exploded in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on October 19 has raised the specter of a return to the string of assassinations that rocked the country from 2005 to 2008, and possibly the Lebanese Civil War before that.

The powerful explosion in a narrow residential street killed a top intelligence officer, Brigadier Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, his bodyguard and a bystander, and wounded dozens of people.

Hassan was known as an opponent of the current government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and especially of the regime in neighboring Syria, which dominated Lebanon through a military occupation for 30 years, until mass protests forced the withdrawal of its troops in 2005. Thus, most people believe Syria, where the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad is engaged a bloody war against a popular uprising, was involved in the October 19 bombing.

Even Mikati, who heads a government that includes Syria's allies in Lebanon, made connections between the assassination of Hassan and the arrest last August of former Information Minister Michel Samaha, a staunch ally of the Assad regime who is accused of smuggling explosives and planning a bombing campaign aimed at provoking sectarian conflict in Lebanon. The car bomb could have been retaliation against Hassan, whose security agency uncovered the plot involving Samaha.

Hassan is also believed to have been involved in providing logistical support and arms to units of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella network of armed organizations resisting the Assad dictatorship's crackdown on the uprising in Syria.

With more than 30,000 killed in the battle so far, the Syrian regime is threatening to drag Lebanon and other countries into the conflict, in the hopes of easing pressure on itself and bettering its position in a future settlement. Syria has a long history of doing exactly that, especially in Lebanon.

Eliminating Hassan is expected to disrupt the Syrian rebels' supply network from Lebanon--and to serve as a warning to neighboring countries to back off.

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HASSAN HEADED the powerful Information Branch within Lebanon's Internal Security Forces.

In 2005, he led the personal security team of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive car bomb explosion. Hassan had excused himself from duty that day, which saved his life, but raised many questions.

Afterward, however, his Information Branch managed to analyze the communications network that tracked Hariri's movements. That report was buried until it was unearthed in 2008 by United Nations investigators. Eight days later, a car bomb killed Hassan's aide, Wissam Eid, who was behind the analysis, raising still more questions about who had knowledge of the report.

Meanwhile, though, Hariri's assassination produced massive demonstrations against the Syrian military presence in Lebanon and a Lebanese government dominated by allies of the Syrian regime. The so-called Cedar Revolution, which was backed by the U.S. government, forced the withdrawal of more than 10,000 Syrian troops from the country and produced a government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafik's son.

When Hassan's Information Branch announced, in August of this year, the arrest of Samaha on charges of plotting the bombing campaign, it was seen as a sign of the Syrian regime's weakness in Lebanon. Samaha was known for his close connections to Syria and its powerful ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah--which by then had become part of a new government under Mikati that was once again more aligned with Syria.

Hezbollah is widely believed to be involved in fighting against Syrian revolutionaries along the Lebanese-Syrian border and to have fighters in Syria alongside the Assad regime's forces. Moreover, Hezbollah supporters have been accused of the targeting of Syrians inside Lebanon.

Hassan had also been instrumental in finding and exposing Israeli spy rings in Lebanon. Some reports say this was due to joint work with Hezbollah. Others claim Hassan's surveillance was actually targeted at the Hezbollah leadership, and the Information Branch stumbled upon Israeli espionage networks doing the same thing.

Hassan was a complicated figure. He operated in a shadowy intelligence world that required relationships with competing forces, fluid alliances and keeping tabs on both enemies and friends. He was seen as a liaison between Saad Hariri, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. For example, he was involved in brokering a deal with Hezbollah that allowed the group to keep parts of its controversial private communications network away from state oversight.

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THE CURRENT Lebanese government led by Mitaki relies on Hezbollah, which is allied to both Syria and Iran. The alliance of government supporters is called the March 8th Coalition. The opposition is called the March 14th Coalition. It is led by Saad Hariri's predominantly Sunni Future Movement. It opposes the Syrian regime and is seen as pro-Western and close to Saudi Arabia. The two dates come from competing mass marches held in 2005 following the Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Under Lebanon's convoluted power-sharing deals between the sect-based political parties, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), where Hassan led the intelligence division, is staffed by Hariri supporters and is therefore controlled by March 14th. It is the Sunni-dominated counterpart to other more powerful state security organizations. The growing power of the Information Branch, however, alarmed even some of Hariri's allies, according to a leaked U.S. embassy cable:

[Samir Geagea, another senior figure in March 14th] is worried that Hariri intends to expand the size and mission of the traditionally Sunni ISF intelligence branch to make it into a peer competitor with the traditionally Christian Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) G-2 and the traditionally Shia Surete General [General Security].

Leaders of March 14th hoped to take advantage of the popular discontent caused by the deadly car bomb and called for a "day of rage" on October 21, which they hoped would bring out a mass show of support. But the thousands who attended Hassan's funeral were a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who came out when Rafik Hariri died.

The funeral ceremony in downtown Beirut ended in a march that attempted to storm the nearby offices of Prime Minister Mikati, while demonstrators demanded his ouster. Protesters clashed with security forces, who hurriedly deployed barbed-wire barricades and fired tear gas into the crowd. Realizing the situation was getting out of hand, the March 14th leadership immediately called for their supporters to leave the streets.

The difficulty for the March 14th leadership faces is that, despite amping up their rhetoric against March 8th, they have no clear ability to shift the balance of power in their favor. Any street confrontations, especially if arms were involved, would pit them against the much better-equipped and better-trained Hezbollah forces.

This carries with it the huge risk of plunging the country into another civil war. After enduring the bloody 16-year-long conflict from 1975 to 1991, most Lebanese do not want to experience another, so they view the political leadership as playing with fire and pushing the country closer to the edge.

On the other hand, March 14th doesn't have many political avenues to pursue to increase their power. The political balance in the government and the parliament means that ousting the Mikati government would require the support of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is currently against a change of cabinet because he isn't convinced there is a better alternative.

The Sunni powers in March 14th are also wary of smearing the position of prime minister, which under Lebanon's "confessional" political system is reserved for a Sunni leader and is one they want to reclaim.

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IN THE revolutionary socialist Arabic-language publication Al-Manshour, Bassem Chit points out that "neither a March 14 government, a March 8 government, nor a national unity government can stop the assassinations while the Assad regime remains standing in Syria...Any confrontation with the Baath regime [in Syria] or with the Israeli enemy cannot continue or succeed as long as it is contained in a sectarian framework, or is subservient to a regional power." As Bassem continues:

This is precisely the crisis that the Arab Revolutions present to the regimes and the authoritarian powers around them. The "Arab street" today has defined the lines of confrontation on the level of overthrowing and changing the regime, not merely changing the cabinet.

This is what makes March 14th and March 8th miserably opportunistic in their use of the Arab Revolutions to justify their right to power. On the one hand, we hear March 14th outbidding the Arab street, [claiming] to be the [forerunners] of the Arab Spring. On the other hand, March 8th is outdoing them, [saying] that the Arab street today is only rising against imperialist hegemony.

The anger on the Lebanese street--whether about the ties of March 8th to the Syrian regime, or the ties of March 14th to the Gulf monarchies and Western imperialism, or the need to do more to support our Syrian brothers and sisters in their revolution, or the lack of electricity and jobs, or the lack of accountability in one unsolved murder after another from the civil war until today--will be misdirected if it is channeled against only one or the other coalition.

The whole of Lebanon's political leadership is part of the same ruling class, and it is implicated, one way or another, in the killings and assassinations.

The fact that Lebanon has a confessional political system, which distributes power among different religious and sectarian leaders, means that the Lebanese people have for decades been under the yoke of mini-dictators, who have held their co-religionist subjects hostage, while using their political positions to enrich themselves.

Lebanon may have more freedom of political expression than most Arab countries, but looking at the enormous human cost of the civil war and assassinations of political figures, the plundering of the economy by the ruling class, and the ever-present threat of Israeli aggression, the question must be asked: Is it really free? Or does Lebanon, in fact, share the same fundamental grievances as the rest of the Arab street?