From the outside looking in, Beirut sometimes appears to be an
endless horror story. A car bomb here, an assassination there, even a Showtime series that depicts it as a war-wracked city where militias runs amok over the trendiest of
neighborhoods. This portrayal has always been an exaggeration -- but today, it
became a little closer to the truth.
This afternoon, a car bomb ripped
through Beirut's Sassine Square, a main commercial center in Ashrafieh, a
predominantly Christian neighborhood. Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the head of
the Internal Security Forces' Information Branch, has been reportedly
killed in the blast.
In Lebanon, each security branch is a fiefdom of a different
political party. Hassan wasn't just a non-partisan official, but widely
recognized as the central ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future
Movement, the country's most important Sunni party. As FP contributor Elias
Hassan had "long been the target of...ire" from Lebanon's pro-Assad political
alliance. Hassan had been riding high: His branch had just arrested
Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's staunchest allies in
Beirut, on charges of plotting attacks against Christian areas on orders of the
For Hariri and his anti-Assad allies, then, this looks like
payback: They struck a blow against one of Assad's men, so the Syrian regime took
revenge by killing the man who orchestrated the arrest. The backlash is already
brewing: Lebanese press outlets have reported scattered clashes
roads in areas of Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli that are
typically flashpoints for violence.
Lebanon has muddled through the Syrian revolt under what
Prime Minister Najib Miqati calls "disassociation" -- it would neither offer its
support to the Assad regime, or the rebels trying to topple it. "What is
happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the
country to something similar," former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a
supporter of the policy, told
me a few weeks ago in Beirut. "We had our share -- for years. And we know
what civil war is about."
That carefully constructed façade has always shown a few
cracks: Hezbollah fighters are widely
suspected to be fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, while Hariri ally
Okab Saqr is reportedly
working from Turkey to funnel weapons to the anti-Assad rebels.
But now, the entire effort to keep Lebanon out of Syria's
war could come crashing down. And if that happens, Beirut could turn into
something all too similar to what you see on the movie screen.