From the outside looking in, Beirut sometimes appears to be an endless horror story. A car bomb here, an assassination there, even a Showtime series that depicts it as a war-wracked city where militias runs amok over the trendiest of neighborhoods. This portrayal has always been an exaggeration — but today, it became a little closer to the truth.
This afternoon, a car bomb ripped through Beirut’s Sassine Square, a main commercial center in Ashrafieh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, has been reportedly killed in the blast.
In Lebanon, each security branch is a fiefdom of a different political party. Hassan wasn’t just a non-partisan official, but widely recognized as the central ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, the country’s most important Sunni party. As FP contributor Elias Muhanna writes, Hassan had "long been the target of…ire" from Lebanon’s pro-Assad political alliance. Hassan had been riding high: His branch had just arrested Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest allies in Beirut, on charges of plotting attacks against Christian areas on orders of the Syrian regime.
For Hariri and his anti-Assad allies, then, this looks like payback: They struck a blow against one of Assad’s men, so the Syrian regime took revenge by killing the man who orchestrated the arrest. The backlash is already brewing: Lebanese press outlets have reported scattered clashes and blocked roads in areas of Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli that are typically flashpoints for violence.
Lebanon has muddled through the Syrian revolt under what Prime Minister Najib Miqati calls "disassociation" — it would neither offer its support to the Assad regime, or the rebels trying to topple it. "What is happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the country to something similar," former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a supporter of the policy, told me a few weeks ago in Beirut. "We had our share — for years. And we know what civil war is about."
That carefully constructed façade has always shown a few cracks: Hezbollah fighters are widely suspected to be fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, while Hariri ally Okab Saqr is reportedly working from Turkey to funnel weapons to the anti-Assad rebels.
But now, the entire effort to keep Lebanon out of Syria’s war could come crashing down. And if that happens, Beirut could turn into something all too similar to what you see on the movie screen.