Source: Daily Telegraph
A powerful car bomb exploded in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut on Oct. 19, killing at least eight people and wounding 80. It was the largest bombing in the country since 2008.
The blast occurred in a predominantly Christian section of central Beirut, 200 yards from the headquarters of the Phalange, a Christian party that is an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime. The explosives-packed vehicle was parked close to the busy Sassine Square intersection, an area of cafes, banks, and boutique shops. The bomb blast destroyed several cars as well as at least one adjacent building. “I was shocked by the huge magnitude of destruction, which indicates that the bomb was very large,” Lebanon state prosecutor Hatem Madi told LBCI television.
General Wissam al-Hassan the intended target
Among the dead was Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the intelligence unit of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF). Hassan’s branch of the ISF was perceived as strongly anti-Syrian. He was also an ally of Lebanon’s main anti-Assad political coalition. The general was considered a star at the agency who had brought significant improvements in its capabilities, for both domestic criminal matters and for security issues.
General Hassan came to prominence in 2005 as an investigator into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. Hassan built a case that a team from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization aligned with Syria, had coordinated the Hariri attack and was at the scene of the murder. The assassination led to a popular backlash that culminated in Syria’s withdrawal of its troops for Lebanon, a major blow to Syrian regional influence.
In a recent case in August, Hassan arrested Michel Samaha, a former minister and close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Samaha was charged with importing explosives in a plot to set off bombs and instigate sectarian violence as part of a Syrian-led campaign to destabilize Lebanon. Two Syrian security officers were also charged. Syria has denied the charges, but Lebanon’s prime minister Najib Mikati said he believed the blast is linked to the case.
Hassan is also credited with uncovering an Israeli spy network that involved Lebanese agents.
“This is a very polarizing figure,” said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
General Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, said General Hassan’s death was a “huge blow.”
Is Syria responsible?
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, several senior Lebanese politicians have accused Syria’s Assad regime of murdering General Hassan. “We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassam, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese,” said Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and opposition leader. Saad Hariri is the second son of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said, “I openly accuse Bashar al-Assad and his regime of killing Wissam al-Hassan.” He added: “[Bashar al-Assad] is telling us that even though he turned Syria into rubble, ‘I am ready to kill in any place.'”
And Nadim Gemayel of the Christian Phalange party stated: “This regime [Syria], which is crumbling, is trying to export its conflict to Lebanon.”
Some analysts also believe that Syria was involved. In the view of Imad Salamey, a professor at Lebanese American University, the attack seemed intended to show that Syria has the ability to destabilize Lebanon and threaten to embroil the region in chaos. Khattar Abou Diab of the University of Paris said the attack was clearly linked to the Syrian crisis. “This is now revenge against a man who confronted the Syrians and revenge against a district, a Christian district in the heart of Beirut,” he stated. “Regional powers are fighting in Syria and now also want to fight in Lebanon.”
The Syrian government has rejected the accusations and condemned the attack, as has its ally, Hezbollah. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zou’bi said that “[s]uch terrorist acts are condemned and unjustifiable wherever they happen.” Hezbollah called the attack an attempt to “undermine national unity.”
International reaction condemns the attack
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attack and “any attempt to destabilize Lebanon through political assassinations.” It demanded an “immediate end to the use of intimidation and violence against political figures.”
Iran also condemned the attack, but implied that Israel was to blame. “Without a doubt the main enemy of the people of Lebanon and the region is the Zionist regime (Israel), which benefits from insecurity and instability in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.
The US characterized the attack as a terrorist strike. “The assassination of the Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was a strong defender of Lebanon’s security and its people, is a dangerous sign that there are those who continue to seek to undermine Lebanon’s stability,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Saudi Arabia also denounced the assassination, in a statement by an unnamed official who called it a “criminal act which targeted the security and stability of Lebanon,” according to the Saudi Press Agency.
The reaction in Lebanon
Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, predicted that “[t]here will be repercussions, they will be severe, and I’m afraid the Sunni community will not accept this.”
Protesters in Sunni areas across Lebanon took to the streets. In Beirut, hundreds of Sunni protesters marched through the downtown, burning tires and blocking traffic. They blamed General Hassan’s assassination on Syria and Hezbollah, and shouted, “Hezbollah is a terrorist group.” Troops reinforced road junctions and official buildings but many roads were blocked by the protesters. Cars with loudspeakers drove though the streets, calling for the government to resign.
At an emergency meeting of the Lebanese cabinet, Prime Minister Mikati offered his resignation, but the cabinet requested he stay on.
On Saturday, Lebanon declared a national day of mourning for the victims.
Beirut Blast Kills at Least 8, Including Top Security Official, The New York Times
Beirut Blast Fans Fears That Syria War Is Spreading, The Wall Street Journal
Beirut bombing kills anti-Assad official, bringing Syrian war to Lebanon, Christian Science Monitor
Beirut assassination heightens fears of Syrian violence embroiling Lebanon, The Washington Post
KSA condemns terrorist bombing in Beirut, Arab News