Is Lebanon on the Cusp of Another Civil War?

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The killing of Lebanon’s domestic intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last week in a massive car bombing in the heart of Beirut’s Christian quarter has raised further questions about the possibility of region-wide instability as a result of the ongoing developments in Syria. Coming seven years after the assassination of another high profile and anti-Syrian politician — former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — the bombing has shaken Lebanon’s fragile stability and threatens to bring the current government down. Given the tensions in the country and the region, most observers and editorials have called for calm and for forestalling any possibility of a Syrian-imported instability.

In Lebanon, the country’s main newspaper, the Daily Star, has addressed the issue in two back to back editorials where it calls for both calm as well as a new government. Reminding its readers of the importance of resisting the urge to respond to what it sees as a Syrian provocation, the first editorial cautions: “If the goal was to divert attention from the events in Syria, then people should remember this well and head off any attempt to take Lebanon further into tension and civil strife. The leaders of all major political parties and movements must act decisively to clamp down on any possibility that even more violence will result….However, the resignation of the government would signal a sense of responsibility and admittance of failure — which in itself would contribute immensely to defusing the explosive situation created by this crime.”

Following massive and violent protests last Sunday, the Daily Star editorial then proceeded to warn the supporters of the anti-Syrian opposition that had taken to the streets to protest the car bombing about the risk of undoing any political success achieved in the aftermath of the assassination: “The fate of Najib Mikati as the prime minister of Lebanon is sealed, in that he doesn’t have a future as the head of the current government formation. The prime minister himself hinted at this….Those who consider themselves partisans of March 14 should be aware that they represent a moment that was characterized by people demanding change, without resorting to violent tactics….The days of the Mikati government are numbered, but events such as those Sunday work to move the premier back in the direction of staying on in his post.”

The Iranians, for their part, are characteristically quick to point the finger at the United States and Israel, accusing the countries of having orchestrated similar attacks in Iran: “Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani has said that the U.S. is behind the terrorist attacks being carried out in Iran and Lebanon. Larijani made the remarks in a speech during an open session of the Majlis on Sunday in comments about the recent terrorist actions in Iran and Lebanon….Commenting on the incident in Lebanon, Larijani stated, ‘After exerting pressure on the Iranian nation, the United States is carrying out terrorist actions, and these actions are carried out both in our country and in Lebanon.’ There are many ambiguities in regard to the incident in Lebanon, he said, adding, ‘It seems they (the Americans) are seeking a new act of adventurism in the region.’”

There is little doubt elsewhere in the region however, as to who isv  responsible for the car bombing and the reasons behind such attacks. The Saudi Gazette for example, makes the connection between the assassination of al-Hassan and his investigation into the involvement of a Lebanese Minister in another assassination plot: “Lebanon and Syria are historically enmeshed in a political and religious web impossible to untangle from sectarian ties and rivalries. Damascus is the stronger and often pulls the strings to which Beirut dances. The capture of former information minister Samaha early in August as part of a plot to assassinate key religious and political figures, followed by the assassination of Al-Hassan, only highlights Syria’s power on Lebanese soil. Lebanon today is unstable and uncertain. Few want a return to the civil war and few agree what the end of Al-Assad in Syria will bring.”

Abdel Aziz Aluwaishg, in an op-ed for the other major Saudi daily, Arab News, also sees the hand of Syria, noting that by internationalizing the conflict, the Syrian leadership might actually undermine its own claim that the Syrian conflict is an internal one: “By internationalizing the conflict, the Syrian regime may have accelerated outside intervention. As the conflict remained confined inside Syria, traditional international law tools made it difficult for the international community to intervene. In fact, Russia’s main argument for shielding Assad from international intervention is precisely that the conflict is an internal one and should be left to the Syrians to sort it out. By deliberately expanding the conflict zone, first into Turkey and now Lebanon, Syria is undermining the arguments of its main ally.”

In Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yaron Friedman lists a number of reasons for why Syria and its allies would want al-Hassan dead, arguing: “[The] assassination of a top Lebanese intel officer [is a] possible Syrian warning to those who support rebels…. al-Hassan recently exposed an attempt to smuggle explosives into Lebanon…. It is unlikely that al-Hassan’s murder was a pure act of revenge perpetrated by Syria, but there is no doubt that his efforts to curtail the smuggling from Syria were viewed by the rebels in Syria as a sign of Assad’s weakness….Hezbollah’s covert activity suffered a major blow a few months ago when one of its top commanders, Ali Nassif, was killed by ‘Free Syrian Army rebels’ near the Syrian city of Homs. It is safe to assume that Hezbollah was involved in al-Hassan’s murder, just as it was involved in the murder of Rafik Hariri.”

Finally, there are those in the region who believe that no matter the rationale behind the attack, Lebanon’s leaders and society can ill-afford to get involved in sectarian violence or a broader regional conflict. The Peninsula’s editorial acknowledges the Syrian connections but cautions against any hasty reaction: “The conflict in Syria has resurrected memories of sectarian violence from Lebanon’s long civil war and relations between various groups in the country are very tenuous. That is one reason why the country’s leaders need to be on guard to prevent a repetition of those dark days….The continuation of the Syrian conflict will drag Lebanon into the conflict further, and has the potential to destabilize the entire region”

In a similar vein, the Khaleej Times editorial strongly suggests a policy of restraint from the political leadership in Beirut, adding “It is incumbent upon Beirut to play down the tragedy and not to make use of it as a ploy against Syria to gain political currency. It has to understand that there may be vested actors out to jeopardize their ties and make use of such upheavals as an excuse to further war hysteria in the region. This is a delicate moment for the respective leaderships and the best way out of it is to broaden the level of dialogue and share intelligence notes. The fact that deceased Wissam was at the vanguard of investigations that apparently targeted the regime in Damascus is in itself more than an excuse for any third party to eliminate him and lock down Lebanon and Syria in another perpetual confrontation.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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