Lebanon is still dealing with the aftermath of the latest attack in the country’s turbulent history. On Oct. 19, a suicide car bombing killed eight and injured scores more in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Among those killed was General Wissam al-Hassan, Lebanon’s leading intelligence official for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, suspected to be the target of the attack according to the Associated Press. The attack is every bit as threatening as it seems, placing Lebanon in a precarious position. Many fear that Lebanon will regress into the violent chaos of its civil war (roughly 1975–1989) or become a puppet of the Assad regime in Syria.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s place this incident within the broader framework of Lebanon’s recent history.
Lebanon has long been a hotbed of sectarian tension. Even as a French mandate in 1926, the country’s constitution divided political power along religious lines, between Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shi’i. During the ’60s and ’70s, these sectarian divisions came to a head surrounding the question of whether or not Palestinians should be allowed to use Lebanon as a political and military base. By 1975, civil war engulfed the country.
The recent car bombing can be read as a continuation of this longstanding sectarianism in Lebanon. Jeremy Bowen, writing for The Guardian, takes this theory one step further. He views the attack as evidence not only of Lebanese sectarianism, but also of burgeoning divides within the region. “As the Middle East goes through a historic transformation, sectarianism is emerging as one of the strongest features in the political landscape,” he writes. “Nationalism had a similar role in Europe in the 20th century. Sectarianism in the Middle East is as divisive and perhaps potentially as dangerous.”
Sectarianism is one way to frame the recent attack. For a bit more context, we can also view the bombing as part of Syria’s decades-long involvement in Lebanon.
Many attribute the recent attack to Assad or to Hezbollah, a Shia militant group and political party backed by Syria’s ruling regime. This seems all the more plausible, given that General al-Hassan was openly supportive of the Syrian opposition and had helped to undermine a series of attacks Syria had plotted against Lebanon.
The suggestion that Syria would have a hand in the bombing is unsurprising. The recent attack is reminiscent of a suicide attack in October 1983. At 6 a.m., a car loaded with TNT drove into a U.S. headquarters housing 1,600 Marines, killing 241 total. Soon after, the attack was attributed to Syrian and Iranian forces, vying for political control of Lebanon by attempting to force the U.S. out.
Similarly, the 2005 assassination of the then-Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was revealed to be the responsibility of Hezbollah (likely in conjunction with the Syrian regime). The assassination followed tense negotiations between Hariri and Assad in 2004. A New York Times report that year quotes a Hariri supporter, Walid Jamblatt, relaying Bashar al-Assad’s message to Lebanon: “ ‘If [Hariri] and [Jacques Chirac, president of France] want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.’” Following the attack Syria was ordered to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, marking the end of 30 years of occupation.
Thus, the attack on al-Hassan could be the latest addition to a long series of Syrian interventions in Lebanon.
While context is helpful, the question remains: Why now?
In the midst of its own civil war, the Assad regime theoretically has enough on its plate to occupy all its resources. As such, Syria must have something significant to gain in pursuing violence in Lebanon. Of the explanations regarding the Assad regime’s rationale, two are particularly compelling. First, that Assad hopes to reclaim “Greater Syria.” Second, that he is trying to destabilize the region in an attempt at diversion tactics.
In 1917, the British and the French partitioned what is referred to as “Greater Syria,” a broad territory including present-day Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. Ever since, a nationalist, Pan-Syrian vision has occupied the country’s imagination. When speaking at Yale on Oct. 22, former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker suggested that the Assad regime may be leveraging chaos in order to reclaim “Greater Syria.” Given that Assad cannot secure authority in Syria, it’s possible, indeed likely, that he sees control of Lebanon as a means of asserting legitimacy — a life raft, of sorts.
If Assad is not searching to increase his control, then he is likely searching to distract from his lack thereof. Destabilizing Lebanon would create a sense of impending regional chaos that would force the international community to renegotiate its approach with the Syrian regime.
Time will tell whether the attack in Lebanon was an isolated incident. Regardless, it should serve as a grave warning. Assad intends to demonstrate that if Syria falls, Lebanon will go with it. Thus, Lebanon becomes a bargaining chip. The international community should not fall into this trap. The fate of Lebanon is not a reason to negotiate with a ruthless dictator, but rather an additional incentive to defeat him.