Jittery Hezbollah Fires Opening Salvo in the Battle for Lebanon

The assassination of Lebanon's internal intelligence chief in Beirut reflects Hezbollah's growing concern over its patron, Assad, and increasing demands within Lebanon to disarm the Shi'ite organization.

Lebanon's tourism minister, Fadi Abboud, is considering suing the producers of the U.S. television series "Homeland." As reported in Haaretz a few days ago, Abboud is furious about how Beirut is depicted in the series' second season as an arena of terrorist activity, which, he says, does not accurately reflect the real character of Lebanon's capital.

Abboud could have chosen better timing for his critique. The assassination over the weekend of internal intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan by a car bomb explosion that killed seven other people was the most serious terrorist event in the Lebanese capital in recent years. Beyond that, it highlights the fear that the murderous civil war in Syria could overflow into its western neighbor. Although Syria and its Hezbollah ally rushed to deny responsibility for al-Hassan's murder and admonished the act, most people in Beirut believe that both Damascus and the Shi'ite organization were involved in the assassination.

Like the launching of a drone over Israel two weeks ago, the assassination in the Lebanese capital reflects Hezbollah's growing distress over the situation of its patron, Assad, and increasing demands within Lebanon to disarm the Shi'ite organization.

These days, it is difficult to differentiate between Syria and Hezbollah. The Lebanese have lost many dozens of activists, including senior field commanders, in battles they have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Syrian army against the rebels. There are reliable reports that Hezbollah's most elite forces are guarding bases with the highest strategic value to the Syrian president. Every few days the violence spills into Lebanon itself, as Hezbollah fires into areas controlled by the rebels or there are revenge reprisals by Lebanese Sunnis on concentrations of Shi'ites and Alawites in the north of the country.

Like Iran, Hezbollah has an interest in preventing the downfall of Assad's regime. The barrier of shame has been broken: The organization publicly admits its involvement in the fighting in Syria, in the understanding that Assad's downfall could seriously undermine its standing within Lebanon. To a large extent, the assassination in Beirut looks like the opening shot in Hezbollah's internal struggle in Lebanon - a clear message to its rivals that there is more to come.

From an Israeli point of view, the worrying aspect is the instability spreading throughout Lebanon. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's public appearance after the drone was intercepted over the Negev expressed insecurity rather than an organized strategic doctrine. When Nasrallah is anxious he is liable to make a mistake. For the first time in the six years since the Second Lebanon War, there is a perceptible fear of a series of mistakes that could lead to an inflammation of the conflict in the north of Israel. The danger increases also because of the repercussions of the internal situation in Syria: Israel has already publicly announced that it will act to thwart the smuggling of advanced armaments from Syria to Hezbollah.

The head of the anti-Syrian "March 14 alliance" in Lebanon, Saad Hariri, declared on Friday that "Bashar Hafez el-Assad (sic) is responsible for assassinating Wissam al-Hassan." He was joined by the Druze leader Walid Jumblat, in the latest of his political zigzags. It appears that they preferred accusing Syria to mentioning Hezbollah.

Al-Hassan had many enemies, and was considered one of the most careful figures in Beirut who concealed his travel plans. His family moved to Paris and he always carried a pistol. Both Syria and Hezbollah had accounts to settle with him.

A Lebanese youth carrying a tire to throw on a roadblock erected to protest the assassination Friday of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan.Credit: AP

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