The death of a senior Lebanese intelligence official in the October 19 bombing in central Beirut appears now to have been a targeted assassination. The official, Lebanese Internal Security Forces chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, was directly involved in providing logistical and supply-line support in Lebanon for the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is attempting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The assassination was likely intended to disrupt the Syrian rebels’ support networks – as well as to trigger a series of retaliatory strikes against Syrian assets and allies and to spark a broader increase in sectarian conflict in Lebanon.
A previous attempt on Hassan’s life was made earlier this year, probably by Syrian intelligence operatives, and Syrian officials likely commissioned or committed the October 19 attack as well. Hassan, a Sunni, was known for his support for Sunni opposition groups in Lebanon, such as the March 14 alliance and former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement. The Internal Security Forces are the only Sunni-dominated arm of the Lebanese security apparatus and are backed by Saudi Arabia, which along with Turkey and Qatar has been the strongest supporter of the Syrian rebels.
Hassan was directly involved in the Internal Security Forces’ August 9 arrest of former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha, a close ally of Assad, over alleged involvement in a bomb plot commissioned by Damascus. Hassan was also reportedly close to former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father, and took part in the investigation into Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination, which implicated Syria and Hezbollah.
“The Syrian regime has a strategic interest in stirring up sectarian tensions and triggering retaliatory strikes in Lebanon.” – Stratfor
Stratfor sources in Lebanon indicate that the October 19 bombing was intended to look like a suicide attack in order to make the attack appear to be the work of jihadists. In recent months, jihadists have been moving into the Levant to support the rebels and fight the Assad regime. Moreover, militant Salafists have increased their presence and activity in Lebanon, especially in Tripoli, where they have repeatedly clashed with the Lebanese Alawite community. However, even if the appearance of the bombing provides the Syrian regime a slight degree of plausible deniability, Hassan’s supporters are unlikely to believe that jihadists were responsible.
The Syrian regime has a strategic interest in stirring up sectarian tensions and triggering retaliatory strikes in Lebanon. Facing fractures within its Alawite core and increasing pressure on its supply lines, the regime needs to change the strategic environment. It has also seen its close ally, Hezbollah, limit the support it has traditionally provided to Damascus and essentially take a self-preservation posture.
The October 19 attack could intimidate anti-Assad individuals in Lebanon from becoming more involved in the Syrian conflict. More important, instability and sectarian clashes in Lebanon – especially ones that involve the Lebanese Alawites or Shi’ites – could weaken support for the rebels in Syria while reviving support for Assad.
Indeed, retaliatory attacks are highly likely. Supporters of Hassan and the Future Movement will likely target Syrian assets in Lebanon, including Syria-allied businessmen, intelligence operatives and even Syrian businesses. Actions against Syria’s main allies in Lebanon – Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition partners, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Shi’ite Amal Movement – is also likely. Back-and-forth retaliations along sectarian lines would relieve some of the pressure on Damascus and push the Syrian conflict into Lebanon.
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