Syria a Spark That Could Ignite Lebanon

By Aram Nerguizian

On Friday, October 19, 2012, a car bomb exploded in Sassine Square, a busy thoroughfare in the predominantly Christian east Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh. It injured more than 100 people and killed 8, including Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces' (ISF) intelligence branch, and his bodyguard.

It is all but certain that General al-Hassan was the intended target. Leading members of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition have openly accused the Ba'th-led regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria of orchestrating the killing. Leading members of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition also called for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the collapse of a government that includes the bulk of the country's pro-Syrian factions.

The brutal death of one of Lebanon's most senior intelligence and security figures is a critical development. Known for being close to the pro-Western and anti-Syrian political opposition and the mainly Sunni Future Movement of former prime minister Saad Hariri, al-Hassan was a key figure in the ongoing investigation of the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. He was also reported to have played a pivotal role in the arrest of Michel Samaha, a former member of parliament with ties to Syria, who was arrested in August 2012 on charges of plotting bomb attacks meant to trigger sectarian violence, including in the mainly Sunni north.

After an emotionally charged funeral service, a relatively small number of protesters tried to overrun the Grand Serail, Lebanon's seat of government, followed by overnight Sunni-Shiite armed clashes in Beirut and Sunni-Alawite violence in the northern city of Tripoli. In response to events and in order to avoid any further escalation, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) quickly deployed troops to affected areas. These included elements from the Ranger Regiment to Beirut and the Navy Commando Regiment to Tripoli-both elite units willing to use lethal force against any faction that breaks the precarious peace.

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The way these events unfold in Lebanon is important to the United States and its allies. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union have shown a general reluctance to upset Lebanon's current political status quo or push for an immediate change in government. First, there is broad international consensus that Lebanon's current policy of "disassociating" itself from the Syrian crisis is a necessary evil. Furthermore, Western states and their regional Arab allies appear to be mindful of the risks of a power vacuum in a divided Lebanon as they seek to avoid an even steeper slide into the unknown in Syria and an unstable Levant.

Lebanese Dividing Lines on Syria

In late 2012, it remains far from clear how power and politics will evolve in Syria, let alone whether or not the Assad regime could find the means to survive. That has not stopped pro- and anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon from maneuvering in a bid to reshape the internal balance of power or from playing an emerging role in the Syria crisis. What remains unclear is how much or how quickly Lebanon will be destabilized by what could be a long-term internal battle for power in Damascus.

The anti-Syrian and pro-Western March 14 forces-a cross-sectarian grouping of Lebanese political actors that included the majority of the country's Sunni representatives and part of the country's Christians-were pushed to the margins in early 2011 with the collapse of the government of Saad Hariri. However, the growing cycle of unrest in and international isolation of Syria has prompted members of the collation to push for a reversal of their political fortunes.

The March 14 forces have since shown an increasing willingness to capitalize on Syrian instability. There were indications in 2011 that the predominantly Sunni Future Movement was keen to streamline its foreign policy orientation in line with the broader Sunni Arab regional order centered on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the expectation that the Assad regime will eventually fall.

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Aram Nerguizian is a visiting fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

(AP Photo)

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