(Economist) A powerful car bomb in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, has shattered several years of relative calm in Lebanon, dramatically underscoring the danger of a spillover from the violence raging in neighbouring Syria. The mid-afternoon blast on Friday devastated a narrow residential street near Sassine Square, the busy focal point of the city’s largely Christian Ashrafiyeh district. Initial reports said at least eight people had been killed and as many as 94 injured. Just as during the spate of bloody assassinations-by-car-bomb that shook Lebanon between 2004 and 2008, most of these victims were hapless bystanders. The real target was one man, Brigadier General Wissam al Hassan.
As intelligence chief of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, General Hassan had plenty of enemies. His police branch has been seen as a bastion of influence for Lebanon’s 30% Sunni Muslim minority, and also as a locus of hostility towards the Syrian regime, which has long exercised overweening influence in its smaller neighbour. Within Lebanon’s complex sectarian equation, Sunnis overwhelmingly oppose the country’s current governing coalition, which is made up of Shia and pro-Syrian Christian factions, including Hizbullah, the fearsomely armed Shia party-cum-militia.
In 2008 this alliance, known collectively as March 8th, captured power from the opposing March 14th coalition that groups Sunnis, Druze and anti-Syrian Christians. The until-now-unsolved series of political murders in the preceding years had targeted several March 14th leaders, including Rafik Hariri, a prominent Sunni who served five times as Lebanon’s prime minister. The country has remained deeply polarised ever since, with tensions mounting as Syria’s strife has descended into a sectarian struggle not unlike the civil war that plagued Lebanon from 1975-1990.
General Hassan had served as Mr Hariri’s security chief.
His police branch aided UN investigators into the Hariri assassination who have pointed a finger at Hizbullah. More recently, in August, General Hassan’s men arrested a prominent pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, Michel Samaha, following the alleged discovery of explosive devices in the boot of his car. Leaked accounts of his interrogation suggested that Mr Samaha had transported them from the Syrian capital, Damascus, where they had been supplied by a top Syrian intelligence officer. The leaked transcript hinted that the bombs had been intended for use in a campaign to stir sectarian tensions, by targeting Lebanese Christian politicians and anti-Syrian Sunni Muslim activists.
Not surprisingly, March 14th politicians have been quick to accuse the Syrian regime of responsibility for the Beirut blast that killed General Hassan. Equally unsurprisingly, Sunni districts of Lebanon erupted in protests over the killing of “their” police chief. Until now, fears of a return to civil war have helped keep a lid on Lebanon, despite the fact that Hizbullah and Sunni Lebanese groups have each been sending weapons and fighters to aid opposing sides in Syria. Now, the gloves may come off in Lebanon, too.