I’ve lost count – my bad math is not coping very well with the series of events that has been unfolding in Lebanon. Should I start from 2005 and the murder of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri? Or should I start from the civil war? Or even before? Political assassination has a long and tragic history in Lebanon.
The new name on this long list is Wissam-al-Hassan, a Lebanese figure who was well-known when alive and now, after his death, has become famous worldwide. Every print and digital media outlet has published reports on him, his crucial role in the future movement, the March 14th coalition and Lebanon as a whole. Following his murder, the usual pointing of fingers began immediately with Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt explicitly blaming Syria and the Assad regime, while the pro-March 8th and Iran blamed – as usual – Israel.
When it comes to the Middle East, the lack of transparency and accountability make it difficult to stay calm and rational and draw reasonable conclusions. In fact, political assassination in my part of the world is the fastest, easy way to settle the score and to create a foggy environment where the truth is deemed impossible to find. Nonetheless, I find it amusing that those whom in the past accused Al-Hassan of being an Israeli agent are now accusing Israel of standing behind his murder.
Though it is very plausible to point finger at Assad, I find it less convincing that Assad has conducted yesterday’s assassination without co-operation (or at least a nod) from the Iranians. On Twitter, Borzou Daragahi argued that: “The Beirut bomb shows how Syria’s and Iran’s interests diverge; Syria wants sectarian war in Lebanon; Iran needs Hezbollah to save weapons for Israel.” This argument is sound, but my question is can Assad afford to defy the Iranians and do it alone? I doubt it. Syria now is not a functioning state; the regime is bankrolled by the Mullahs in Tehran for survival; therefore, it is very plausible that the regime in Damascus planned and executed such a sensitive operation on its own as it may have a knock-on effect on Iranian allies in Lebanon (Hezbollah & Co.).
Michael Young wrote: “It’s possible that Hizbollah, if it was indeed involved in the crime, had little latitude to refuse a Syrian request to get rid of the general. More likely, it saw an advantage in removing a man who was regarded as a favourite to succeed Gen. Rifi, and concluded that sectarian tensions could be contained. Above all, there was benefit in removing a Sunni who headed an institution, and had the skills, to stand up to Hizbollah in a post-Assad period, when the party will seek to consolidate its hold on Lebanon without Syrian backing.”
Indeed, the post-Assad period is what many chose to ignore. There are growing voices that advocate intervention in Syria under the slogan: “Assad’s survival threatens regional stability.” I have no problem with that slogan, and agree 100% with the message; however, without identifying who is who in the Assad camp and what game the Iranians and their Lebanese allies are currently playing – i.e., convergence with Assad or divergence from him – any intervention in Syria would not achieve the required results.
If Hezbollah was involved in the assassination of Al-Hassan, then ending the Syrian regime alone would not bring the desired stability that the Syrian people and their supporters aspire to achieve. The militant group is capable of orchestrating violence in post-Assad Syria if they want; after all, they had years of practice in undermining nation-building. Even if Hezbollah is not involved in this crime, it is unlikely that they will sit down and watch Syria evolve into a hostile entity that may interrupt their crucial supply line. So, in both scenarios, any plan for Syria should include a plan for Lebanon.
The murder of Wissam Al-Hassan could be part of Hezbollah’s plan for the day after Assad, precisely why It should be viewed as a wake-up call for the anti-Assad camp to understand the scale of the task that they need to achieve. There is one rule that governs both Syria and Lebanon: what starts in Syria never ends in Syria, and what starts in Lebanon never ends in Lebanon. Both countries are still tied together in one package – if Assad’s departure ends half of the story, then Hezbollah might not end the other half. It is wrong to underestimate Iran and its allies. As Mehmet Ali Birand wrote: ” Iran has a culture that invented chess.”