Saad Hariri, the leader of the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance, rushed on Friday to blame Bashar Assad for the killing of Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Information Branch in Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, along with seven others. A number of other senior Lebanese officials from the anti-Syrian camp made similar statements.
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Their statements, however, were far from convincing. It could be that it is easier for Hariri and his friends to cast the blame on the Syrian regime as the culprit than to point their fingers at the organization that had the most to gain from killing al-Hassan – Hezbollah.
Most of the Lebanese public knows that if Syrian intelligence is to blame, there isn't much doubt that local factions, mainly Hezbollah, were behind the car bombing in the heart of the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Beirut.
The execution of such a complex operation, only hours after al-Hassan returned from Paris, requires a combination of exceptional intelligence, field agents and, of course, weapons and explosives. Syrian intelligence has all of these capabilities, but Damascus would not have acted behind Hezbollah's back. Judging by the past, it would have required the help of the Shiite movement.
Hezbollah and Syria share a joint interest in slaying al-Hassan. He was responsible for the investigation of the former Lebanese cabinet minister Michel Samaha, who is suspected of transporting explosives into Lebanon under Syrian orders.
But above all, Hassan uncovered information that led to the implication of Hezbollah in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005 in a car bombing outside Beirut's Saint George Hotel. Then, too, fingers were at first pointed at Damascus. Only several years later was the involvement of Hezbollah members, some of them senior, exposed.
The Hariri murder led to the Cedar Revolution, the expulsion of the Syrian military from Lebanon and the ascent of the March 14 camp to power. However, the full effect of this revolution did not quite survive the test of time. The Syrian army may have officially left Lebanon, but it has never relinquished its covert presence in the country.
Still, on Friday, Sunni citizens went out into the streets across Lebanon to demonstrate against the attack, including in Tripoli, which has in recent month seen fierce fighting between Sunni and Alawite families. The ethnic hostility that has plagued Lebanon throughout its history is unlikely to subside following Hassan's assassination.
In recent days, military cooperation between Hezbollah and Assad's army has become closer than ever: Hezbollah has been bombarding Syrian opposition strongholds along the Lebanon-Syria border, while Free Syrian Army and Hezbollah forces have exchanged fire along the border.
The regular Lebanese army is aware of these developments, and has begun to clash in the field with Hezbollah. These clashes are expected to intensify in the near future, including along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
The leaders of the Shiite organization, including Hassan Nasrallah, have not outright denied complicity in the assassination, and it seems that the organization no longer feels it has anything to be ashamed of. Hezbollah is currently preoccupied with Assad's struggle for survival in Syria, well aware that the outcome of that struggle will have a dramatic effect on the future of Lebanon.
The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah triangle is aware, in more ways than one, that the fall of one of its three sides could ultimately lead to the downfall of the other two. The weakening of the regime in Syria has led to an escalation in the rhetoric voiced against Hezbollah in Lebanon and calls for disarming Hezbollah have become louder than ever.
All of this could lead one to view Friday's assassination as the opening shot in Hezbollah's battle for the future of Lebanon, and as a clear message to their rivals.
To be continued...