On the 19th of October 2012, a car bomb explosion in East Beirut killed Police Information Branch Chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan with 2 other people. The assassination came as a surprise to many. The person in charge of the most powerful security apparatus in Lebanon is dead, who else is safe?
In the deeply divided country, accusations following every assassination are always ready. March 14 Alliance accuses Syria; while March 8 alliance accuses Israel, and the latter accuses Hezbollah. In this particular assassination however, pointing fingers is not as easy due to Al-Hassan’s enigmatic personality. The only absentee on the day of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and the mastermind behind many successful security operations, al-Hassan has earned the title of Lebanon’s most skilled security official.
While intelligence officers around the world veer away from politics, in a country as politicized and sectarianized as Lebanon, this is considered a sin. Al-Hassan understood that very well. Although he sided with the Future Movement, the largest constituent of March 14 alliances, he kept channels of communications open with its rivals.
As the divide in the country between political parties grew wider after 2005, al-Hassan played the attaché role between March 14 and March 8 alliances. He coordinated with Hezbollah on internal and external security matters. Furthermore, al-Hassan took credit for dismantling many Israeli espionage networks (More than 30 according to Future Movement sources). Using advanced telecommunication and interception technologies presented by western countries to help with Hariri assassination investigation, the information branch and the military intelligence arrested more than 40 people in the past 7 years, some of which were high ranked army officials and politicians.
Furthermore, al-Hassan orchestrated Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus in 2009 after a 4 years long and hostile relationship where Hariri accused the Syrian regime of assassinating his father. Prior to that, al-Hassan was behind Hariri’s acknowledgement of the presence of false witnesses in his father’s assassination investigation, which led to pointing fingers to Syria between years 2005 and 2009.
On the other hand, al-Hassan himself was accused of fabricating false witnesses in the Hariri case. He was caught on tape helping one of the witnesses, Muhammad Zuhair Al-Siddiq, present a coherent testimony to the investigators, in the presence of Saad Hariri. It is also believed that he helped provide the special tribunal of Lebanon with evidence that implicates four Hezbollah members in the Hariri assassination.
Very recently, al-Hassan took once again the centre stage in the ever eventful country; his branch arrested Michel Samaha, a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, in charges of plotting a terrorist attack. Last but not least, al-Hassan has recently been accused of helping the Syrian opposition through facilitating the flow of arms from the north of the country to bordering Syrian cities.
The questions that arise after each crime are who did it? What are the motives? And who benefits from it? In Post-Syria Lebanon these questions often remained unanswered subsequently to assassinations of such nature. Investigations usually faced political and logistical difficulties that often directed that often led to dead ends. In the case of al-Hassan, the man with many “friends”, the complexity is doubled. March 14 alliance accused Syria, just hours after the explosion, a practice used intermittently since 2005. Israel and some western countries are pointing fingers to Hezbollah, and finally March 8 alliance is pointing fingers to Israel.
The assassination of such controversial figure requires calm and deep analysis that takes in consideration the political context in Lebanon and the region. The man was involved in both the intelligence and political realms. Although he was close to March 14th he never severed relations with March 8. He coordinated with intelligence from over 34 countries in the assassinations that have been taking place ever since 2005. At the same time, he held a public office where he had the responsibility of keeping internal security.
A portfolio like this will earn you more enemies than friends. The question becomes: who of al-Hassan’s foes found it beneficial to get rid of him in the present time? I will go through the three main suspects that are directly accused of this act: the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, and Israel; all of which have capabilities to do it, but in different capacities. Assuming that the side that planned the act is a rational actor, an assessment of the motives, momentum, and a brief cost/benefit analysis of each suspect can help draw a better image.
The Syrian regime
Motives: Syria was blamed for all the assassinations targeting March 14th figures in Lebanon ever since 2004. In al-Hassan’s case, the accusation becomes more plausible since his bureau recently arrested one of the Syrian regime affluent allies in Lebanon in charges of terrorism. Moreover, Saad Hariri is openly supporting the Syrian opposition, and al-Hassan is believed to play an important role in that. The Syrian regime has all the motives to eliminate al-Hassan.
Momentum: The latest Samaha case and the support for the Syrian uprising have pushed al-Hassan into the spotlight as a serious contender of the Syrian regime. Not surprisingly, a Brigade of the Free Syrian army has been named after al-Hassan shortly after his assassination. High exposure usually deters antagonists to attack since they will be the first to be accused- Assuming that we are dealing with a rational actor-.
Cost/Benefit: Politically speaking, the Syrian regime’s survival of the uprising for more than a year and a half now, have put him in a relatively stronger position compared to his foes. Any error on the part of the regime is exploited ruthlessly by its opponents, inside and outside the country. It helps mount pressures and embarrass the regime’s international and regional allies in the United Nations. With Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission underway (presently trying to bring both conflicting parties to commit to a cease-fire), and the Turks and the West showing weak signs of regression, it is unlikely to see Assad giving a pro bono for his contenders. Eliminating al-Hassan is unlikely to stop the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition from Lebanon. While the regime has shown an uncontestable brutality, it has also shown that it is a self-interested rational actor, looking for survival. In al-Hassan’s case, while revenge is tempting for Assad’s regime, the costs simply outweigh the benefits for the Syrian regime at the present time.
Motives: Keeping in mind al-Hassan’ role in uncovering Israeli espionage networks, Israeli motives are not linked directly to al-Hassan himself, but rather to his statute in the Lebanese political scene. Israel’s main adversary in Lebanon is Hezbollah. Around 10 days ago, the Party of God flew a reconnaissance drone for hours over strategic Israeli sites, including the Demona nuclear reactor in the Negev desert. This in itself have undermined years of hard work put in the construction of the iron dome, a rocket and missile defense system that was officially launched in 2011. It has also ridiculed claims of military supremacy of a country that has been banging the drums of war for some time now against a more powerful opponent than Hezbollah, Iran. Defiance as dangerous as this one cannot go unanswered, but at the same time it has to be measured enough to avoid slipping into an unpredictable regional war.
Momentum: Following al-Hassan’s arrest of a Lebanese pro-Syrian politician, his assassination will automatically draw attention to Syria and Hezbollah as the culprits. It will serve as an immediate deterrence coded message from the Israelis to Hezbollah in response to the latter’s daring and recent drone operation. Finally, it will add to the case against Hezbollah recently being carried out in the international justice system.
Cost/Benefit: The breach of the Ayoub drone is unparalleled in the ongoing cold war between Israel and Hezbollah ever since 2006. Israel is currently unable to respond with a direct military strike, in fear of the implications of such step: a regional war that Israel doesn’t seem ready for. However, the Israelis are not used to let such defiance go unanswered, the 2006 Lebanon war and the 2008 Gaza war are reminders of such reality. What is the best scenario to retaliate and mount pressure on Hezbollah and its allies without slipping into an unpredictable regional war? Experience has shown that Hezbollah’s biggest fear is an internal sectarian civil war that will drain its military wing. While sectarian polarization between Sunnis and Shiites has been building up for a while now in Lebanon and the region, the right trigger can lead to an explosion that will primarily burn Hezbollah. The prominent Sunni official, the dove in March 14 alliance and the main contender of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, al-Hassan constitutes the perfect subject for the set objective.
Motives: Al-Hassan helped implicate Hezbollah members in the Rafiq Hariri’s assassination investigation. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has already requested the arrest of four Hezbollah members. Moreover, al-Hassan’s alleged role in supporting the Syrian opposition against the Syrian regime, a strong ally of Hezbollah, puts him automatically at odds with Hezbollah.
Momentum: The assassination will incite sectarian tensions and has already done so. This automatically reflects negatively on Hezbollah. Internal instability has never been a helpful factor for the party. Moreover, Hezbollah has just flown an unmanned drone into Israel. The significance and the importance of such event are overshadowed by al-Hassan’s assassination; taking away of the media impact that Hezbollah always tend to get for any “surprise” related to the conflict with Israel.
Cost/Benefit: The involvement of different Lebanese forces in the Syrian conflict is no longer a secret. The North of Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa valley are dominated by supporters of the Free Syrian Army, and Lebanese politicians are facilitating access to resources for both parties. Neither Hezbollah nor al-Hassan can single handedly change this reality. March 14 politicians are openly against the Syrian regime; al-Hassan might be one of the doves in this group. Furthermore, the damage of the tribunal is already done and the Hezbollah suspects have already been summoned. The complex Lebanese politics will probably never see a definitive end to this story and the suspects will never be handed in, unless Hezbollah is attacked and his military wing forcefully dismantled, at which point, the tribunal will not be the party’s first worries. If it was revenge that Hezbollah is seeking, it will unlikely be done in such a careless way. The party has a reputation of being a patient and a very well-calculated actor. By assassinating al-Hassan, Hezbollah was not going to stop neither the STL process nor the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition, but will gain him sectarian tensions within Lebanon and an additional charge added to his file in the STL.
Similar to previous assassinations in Lebanon, this latest one is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The scenarios presented above are all plausible but their probabilities vary, and they are meant to present a more in depth understanding of the complexity of al-Hassan’s assassination.
The polarization in the Middle East today has never been clearer. The era of détente between the anti-American and Pro-American camps has ended. Diplomacy has taken a back seat and coercion is the name of the game. In instances like this, resourceful and diplomatic figures, such as al-Hassan, are not needed as much and thus become expendable. As the saying goes “only the dead have seen the end of war.”