Washington acted fast to hold back Lebanon’s anti-Syrian Lebanese forces from avenging the assassination of Lebanon’s top intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, who died a bomb blast in Beirut on Oct. 19. Bashar Assad and his Hizballah sidekick, Hassan Nasrallah, widely held responsible for the act, were allowed to escape retribution.
US officials decided to clamp down restraints when the heard Lebanese opposition March 14 leaders demanding that the Al-Hasan murder offer the sequel for former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in February 2005 by the same method – a massive car explosion in Beirut.
The first crime helped drive Syrian forces out of Beirut, they said; the second must finish Assad off in Damascus.
If the Lebanese opposition were galvanized by the Hasan murder to overthrow the pro-Syria, pro-Hizballah government in Beirut, headed by Najib Miqati, it was feared in Washington Hassan Nasrallah would push through this open door and set his Hizballah gunmen loose to seize the capital and other Lebanese cities by force. The strongest fighting force in the country, the Hizballah would lead its March 8 bloc to mow down the Lebanese army and turn to their enemies, only to be tackled in the streets by the dead Lebanese leader’s son, Saad Hariri, at the head of his March 14 party faithful and their Sunni and other allies. Samir Geagea’s Christian Phalangists, Assad’s fiercest foe in Lebanon, would plunge into the fray.
And precariously-balanced Lebanon would be ripped apart once again by another bloody sectarian war set off by the Syrian conflict.
The pro-US, anti-terror war lost a linchpin
The late Gen. Al Hasan was the senior guardian of Lebanese security. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report he was also a vital linchpin of the sensitive collaboration between the American CIA and Saudi intelligence in the Syrian conflict and other volatile Middle East arenas. His contribution was also pivotal to the US-Arab war on terror in many corners of the Middle East.
In the national sense, his loss compares with the impact of the Rafiq Hariri killing seven years ago; in the broader strategic reckoning, it may be likened to the death of CIA Near East Chief Robert Clayton Ames in the April 1983 US embassy bombing in Beirut, which too was plotted and executed by Syrian and Hizballah military intelligence.
Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, then president of Syria, resorted to a mega-terror attack to drive US troops from Lebanon. His son followed in his father’s pitiless footsteps to warn off the US undercover presence in the Middle East.
Then, US troops were sent to Beirut to take over from the Israeli army which had thrust northward in pursuit of the Palestinian forces and end their assaults on northern Israel from Lebanese bases. President Ronald Reagan was flatly opposed to an Israeli military presence in an Arab capital. American military and undercover forces paid the price.
The Hasan murder was Assad’s punishment for Washington
Gen. al-Hasan was the victim of Assad’s revenge on the United States on two scores: First, for the Obama administration’s efforts to remove him from power and backing for Syrian rebels and, secondly, for the deadly July 18 bombing attack which killed the top men directing Assad’s war on the revolt, including his own brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat.
As a fail-safe measure which also underscored the Syrian message to Washington, the Hizballah assassins did not activate a single car bomb but two, which blew up moments after the first, up against the target’s own vehicle when their victim was already dead.
President Obama decided that before responding, his first priority was to defuse the heat in Beirut before it got out of hand.
Washington started pulling strings, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report, when tens of thousands of angry mourners mustered by the March 14 movement smashed through police barriers and tried to break into the prime minister’s Grand Serail office demanding that Najib Miqati resign. They spread out across Beirut blocking roads and clashing with soldiers who used live gunfire and gas to disperse them.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, who leads the White House anti intervention camp, was put to work to save the government from falling. He called Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, asking him to use his pull with Saad Hariri to pull the protesters back from screaming for Miqati’s ouster.
Two parties boycott new cabinet formation that includes Hizballah
Shortly after, the Saudi prince called back to assure the White House that efforts were underway to calm Lebanese fury and that Hariri was cooperating by holding his people in check.
The State Department then threw its support behind a new government in Lebanon while warning against leaving the country with a power vacuum. US ambassador Mauro Connelly was to meet with Lebanese politicians with a view to supporting President Michel Sleiman’s efforts to build an effective government and restore stability after the Hasan assassination.
To this end, the Lebanese president sought to bring forward the next round of National Dialogue, initially set for Nov. 12, to discuss a new electoral law for next year’s parliamentary election.
However, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora announced his Future movement would boycott the National Dialogue and parliament until Miqati resigned. He was echoed by Samir Geagea, who rejected the claim that the cabinet’s collapse would create a political and security vacuum in the country.
Countering Washington’s pressure for a wall-to-wall administration that would retain Hizballah, the two Christian leaders called for the establishment of a “neutral salvation government” to shift the nation from “a state of simmering tension” and rescue Lebanon from pro-Syrian factions.
“How can we stop this killing machine when its representatives sit inside the government?" Geagea asked, referring to the two Hizballah ministers.
Lebanon remains hostage to its aggressors
Sleiman agreed to postpone the National Dialogue until Nov. 22, to await Siniora’s return from a visit to Washington. Geagea said it was anyway an exercise in futility because Hizballah never yielded on any of its positions.
To break the deadlock, White House officials tried arguing that the Iran-backed Shiite party would lose strength in next year’s parliamentary election. No one in Beirut bought this prediction.
But President Obama, on the advice of National Security Advisor Tom Donillon and his deputy McDonough, decided to force down the throats of the Lebanese opposition the decision he come to after the intelligence chief’s murder: It is better to let Syria and Hizballah off the hook for the crime than to let the Syrian war run over into Lebanon. That would put the US in the position of having to send military forces into Syria.
And so, Washington bound the Lebanese opposition’s hands and left the Assad regime and Hizballah – and through them, Iran – with a free hand to hold Lebanon hostage.