Beirut assassination highlights extent of Lebanese involvement in anti-Syrian fighting

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The precisely-target bombing assassination on Oct. 19, 2012, in the Christian Ashrafia area of Beirut of Brig.-Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the Internal Security Force Information Branch Chief, and six other officials, highlighted an area neglected by external analysts and policy officials.

We refer to the extent to which Lebanese security forces were actively engaged in working with the Syrian armed opposition, and in working to suppress the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based Shi’a Hizbullah paramilitary forces in supporting the Syrian Bashar al-Assad Government in the current civil war there.

The two sons of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated on Oct. 19 by a car bomb, mourn during their father's funeral procession at the Lebanese police headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. / Hussein Malla Sun / AP

It was a measure of the extreme danger which the Assad Government felt from the actions of Lebanese forces, which were discreetly working against it, in concert with other regional states and the U.S., that Damascus felt that it needed to take such a provocative act at a time when it is under enormous pressure.

One very senior source in Damascus told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs: “It [the bombing] was a Syrian show. Al-Hassan was a fierce enemy of Damascus. He had been pressuring Hizbullah to stop moving forces to northeast Lebanon [from the Beqa’a Valley] in order to intervene in Hama-Homs area [of Syria] (especially should the Turkish army invade from Hatay and advance on Damascus). He also channeled help to the opposition in the Hama-Homs area and assisted the French-orchestrated defection of Manaf Tlass and others. [From Damascus’ standpoint], he had to go fast, and he did, in the middle of Maronite Ashrafia. There is no doubt, moreover, that others took note of the resolve, reach, and audacity of Damascus in protecting its interests.”

A report on Oct. 20, from Beirut, by the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, noted:  “Syrian opposition forces have accused Hezbollah [Hizbullah] of actively taking part in the fighting in Syria, claiming that the Lebanese-based Shi’ite organization is firing hundreds of rockets into Syria on a daily basis.” It quoted Syrian opposition Local Coordination Committee member, Mohamed al-Homsi, who accused Hizbullah of “intervening in the fighting alongside the Syrian regime with all of its power”. Al-Homsi, a member of the Homs Local Coordination Committee, claimed that “between 100 and 150 rockets and mortar shells are being fired by Hezbollah into the Syrian town of al-Qaseer and the surrounding villages on a daily basis, from the group’s military positions in Hermel [on the Syrian-Lebanese border].” He also revealed that the previous few days have seen a strong intensification in the barrage of rocket fire from Hizbullah into Syrian opposition-held territory. He told Asharq Al-Awsat “it has become clear that Hizbullah is taking part, with all of its strength, in this battle, which it considers itself to be a part of.

Hizbullah has sent thousands of its troops, along with military equipment and arms, into Syria, deploying them throughout Homs and the surrounding areas, in addition to Hama, Aleppo, Zabadani and Damascus. They are engaging in fierce clashes with rebel forces”.

Al-Homsi also said that “Hizbullah fighters are teaching the al-Assad regular forces and pro-regime Shabiha militias how to fight street battles” adding “Hizbullah elements are actively taking part in the conflict in Homs, from suppressing protests to leading the battles in Deir Baalba, Baba Amr, al-Qaseer and elsewhere.”

Al-Akhbar’s English-language website noted on Oct. 19, that Brig.-Gen. al-Hassan’s “last posting was as the head of the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) controversial Information Branch, considered a divisive security apparatus because of the strong backing it enjoys from the opposition March 14 coalition, and a number of raids it conducted against people affiliated with the ruling March 8 coalition. He was in charge of the ongoing investigation against former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha. Samaha was arrested in August over allegations that he was plotting to plant explosives in the northern city of Akkar at the behest of the Syrian government.”

The website went on: “The ISF’s information branch was created in the aftermath of former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005. It was considered a counterweight to Lebanese military intelligence which is seen to have close relations with Damascus. The newly-formed security apparatus was largely trained and supplied by U.S. and pro-U.S. Arab intelligence services, including Saudi Arabia. Hassan was the head of late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s personal security team before the latter’s assassination.”

On Oct. 20, al-Akhbar went further, noting that al-Hassan’s “political rôle surpassed his tasks as head of a small military unit conducting a significant security operation in Lebanon and beyond. In regional politics, Hassan’s assassination is a prologue for a new and recurring global cold war, which hides underneath it real wars and bloody chaos in many countries, namely Syria. Also politically, the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan is at the heart of a battle that is open and out of control. All sides of the battle will do what they believe is right. But it will allow others, from outside both sides of the conflict, to interfere, play on contradictions, deliver messages, or even steer the boat in various directions.”

Al-Akhbar also went on to note that al-Hassan had a very partisan and shadowy rôle in Lebanese politics, noting: “In a few years time, Hassan the officer built a professional security apparatus. He built a [police] unit that is somewhat connected to the state, yet leased its own space outside the state.”

Of great significance was the naming of Brig.-Gen. al-Hassan’s successor. On Sunday night, Oct. 21, Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi appointed Colonel Imad Othman as al-Hassan’s successor. Othman is a Sunni police officer. He served together with al-Hassan in sensitive intelligence and security positions during the administration of Rafiq Hariri. He also was the Chief of the Grand Serail police forces during the tenure of Saad Hariri. Othman is also known as a fierce nationalist, anti-Syria/anti-Hizbullah, and a close ally of Saudi Arabia.

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