Increasingly pitched fears that the Syrian civil war will escalate into a regional conflict were heightened Friday as a deadly car bomb in Beirut's predominantly Christian Ashrafiya district killed eight people, including an intelligence officer who was one of the most popular figures in Lebanon's pro-Western and anti-Syrian March 14th movement.
The officer, Col. Wissam al-Hassan, was head of the Information Branch of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, one of the country's two state intelligence services and considered to be aligned against the Assad regime and its Iranian-backed Hezbollah allies. At least 78 others were injured in the attack.
Hassan's murder, which took place near the headquarters of the Christian Phalange party, threatens to reignite the sectarian tensions behind Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and which continue to plague Lebanon. March 14th supporters, quoted in Arabic sources, have linked the murder to Syria and Hezbollah. March 14th Parliamentarian Michel Pharaon speculates that the bombing site was chosen "because it is in the heart of the capital and it is a Christian neighborhood."
Hassan was one of the central figures behind the arrest of former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha on charges of colluding with Assad regime officials to conduct terror attacks and incite sectarian strife inside Lebanon. Hassan was also at the forefront of the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb in February 2005. The terror attack ignited the Cedar Revolution that forced Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanese territories, and Hassan later presented evidence to a U.N. tribunal investigating the attack which implicated Syrian-directed Hezbollah agents.
March 14th supporters have flooded into the streets in protest, and there are confirmed reports of burning tires in Beirut and unconfirmed reports of gunfire exchanges in northern Lebanon.
Arab media analysts on Al Jazeera English revealed that al-Hassan had just returned to Beirut, and speculated that the precise targeting indicates that Lebanon's intelligence services have been seriously penetrated. A loss of faith in Lebanese state institutions will complicate attempts to stabilize the situation, and will dramatically heighten the risk of an escalatory spiral.
Sectarian tensions in Lebanon had already risen sharply in recent weeks in reaction to Hezbollah's increasingly open cross-border military support for Assad. Backed by Iran, Hezbollah militarily controls southern Lebanon and politically dominates the country. Its support for Assad, perceived to be at the behest of the Syrian leader's Iranian allies, has undermined the analysis of some Western specialists to the effect that Hezbollah had an indigenous Lebanese movement pursuing Lebanese interests.
Hezbollah's behavior instead seems to confirm the recent evaluation of Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, who blasted Iran for seeking to turn Lebanon into an "outpost for terror” and implied that Hezbollah was an overseas proxy of the Iranian regime.