In a region of the world where political parties and interests stretch well across national borders, a conflict like the one in Syria does not remain contained for long. The bombing in the neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Beirut on Friday that killed Wissam al-Hassan, a senior Lebanese security official, was a hard reminder of the inevitability of regional conflict in an area like the Levant.
There is no such thing as a brief look back at the histories of Syria and Lebanon. There are so many outside, non-state, and religious interests form the back-story of each conflict, that it becomes nearly impossible to disentangle them and follow the story. Most importantly, though, there is the common and tumultuous shared history of Syria and Lebanon, the importance of which cannot be over-emphasized in understanding current conflicts. The tensest era began when Syrian forces occupied Lebanon during the country’s civil war under the relatively benign pretense of quelling the possible security threat posed by Palestinian groups in Lebanon.
The occupation went on to last thirty years, until the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, in 2005. The assassination sparked the Cedar Revolution, which not only ousted Syrian forces from the country (in name, at least) but also created the two major parties of Lebanese politics, the conflicting loyalties of which are behind Friday’s car bombing. The Lebanese government is now split between the March 8 alliance, the more pro-Syria party aligned with Hezbollah, and the March 14 alliance, characterized by a more anti-Syrian sentiment.
Wissam al-Hassan, the presumed target of Friday’s attack, was a member of the March 14 alliance. The attack is widely assumed to be retribution for the arrest of Michel Samaha, one of the most loyal Syrian allies in Lebanon and a member of the opposing March 8 alliance. Samaha was suspected of transporting arms into Lebanon under Syrian orders and al-Hassan, as the head of the Information Branch, was responsible for the investigation and his arrest.
But as we know, history rhymes. As is often the case in regions with long-standing and competing interests, there is a specific reason to explain the singular event, and there is a larger reason that places the event in the context of on-going grievances and wider tensions.
Fingers have been appointed at both the Syrian government and Hezbollah (the partnership between the two is not much of a secret — it is widely assumed that Bashar al-Assad would not be able to retain his grip on Syria if not for the support of Hezbollah). The more immediate explanation, of course, would be retribution for al-Hassan’s foiling a plot that would allow support of Assad’s regime from Lebanon.
There is, however, a longer and more complicated explanation involving both Syria’s desire to retain control over Lebanon and the three-pronged international alliance between Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.
First, as Syria descends further into chaos, its position of power over Lebanon, guaranteed for so long by virtue of Syria’s much larger size and the relative 30-year long instability of Lebanon, is also thrown into jeopardy. A desire for control of Lebanon is a Syrian legacy rooted as far back as the Ottoman Empire. An attempt to cut the strings that the Syrian government continues to pull in Lebanon, which is precisely what Wissam al-Hassan was doing in arresting Michel Samaha, is obviously an exertion of Lebanese power far outside the comfort zone of Syria and Hezbollah. And more generally, the attack can be thought of as an attempt to destabilize Lebanon, ensuring that it does not gain in relative strength while Syria buries itself deeper in a conflict out of which the only way seems near self-destruction.
The stakes of a stable Lebanon are even greater for the international alliance of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. As tensions rise within Syria, and Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power is threatened more by the day, Hezbollah and Iran worry about their own triangular hold on power. If one leg collapses, the stability of the alliance in general is threatened. It goes without saying this would have repercussions not only throughout the Middle East, but also throughout the world.
The bombing in Ashrafieh should, for outside spectators, serve as a demonstration of how small and vulnerable an attempt at maintaining order and justice is in the face of wider powers like Hezbollah and bloody conflict like that in Syria. It is understandable why Martin Chulov writes “the case Hassan built against Samaha was highly unusual in a place like Lebanon, where bigwigs are rarely taken on. Those such as Samaha with powerful connections are virtually untouchable.” Intervention is a move that has a cruel habit of backfiring for the United States, but the international community should take note: the global implications of the struggle in Syria can no longer be ignored.