x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lebanese must not take Syria's sectarian bait

Lebanon and its government, long the playthings of foreign meddlers, face a grave crisis after the latest bombing sends a clear message from the Al Assad regime.

As the intelligence chief for Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, General Wissam Al Hassan had worked for years to make Lebanon a truly sovereign state. On Friday it cost him his life.

A tangle of geographic, demographic and sectarian conflicts make Lebanon a cockpit for battles most of the country's 4.3 million people do not want to fight. Now Gen Al Hassan's death, in a car bombing in a Christian neighbourhood of Beirut, brings the danger of widespread violence much closer.

Gen Al Hassan had no friends in the corridors of power in Damascus. He helped the Special Tribunal for Lebanon assemble evidence leading to the 2011 indictment of four senior members of Hizbollah for the 2005 car-bomb murder of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister. More recently he built the case against Michel Samaha, a former information minister and a close ally of Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, for planning sectarian bombings in conjunction with a top Syrian security official.

Accordingly, almost everyone in Lebanon lays the blame on Mr Al Assad for the car bomb that killed Gen Al Hassan and wounded dozens.

Opposition leaders - including Rafiq Hariri's son - called for the cabinet, dominated by the pro-Syrian-regime Hizbollah, to resign, a move many in Lebanon believe would be tantamount to admitting failure and signalling defeat. Emergency meetings were held, but early indications that a resignation was forthcoming were later dispelled.

Even if the current government survives, Lebanon's power structure remains a fragile construction that governs lightly, minimally, and has long been open to manipulation. But while some might welcome resignations, they would not bring an end to the troublemaking from Damascus. It is far from evident what Mr Al Assad thinks he can gain by dragging Lebanon into the maelstrom he has made of his own country, unless perhaps a distraction for foreign attention.

Lebanon knows the cost of sectarian bloodshed. The great majority will be deeply reluctant to move in that direction again. The trouble is that Lebanon's leadership has, since the 1975-1990 civil war, been more at the whim of outside forces than the will of its people.

Divided along sectarian, religious and ideological lines, Lebanon's leaders are more pawns than arbiters of true power.

In Syria's crisis Gen Al Hassan saw an opportunity to get out from under Assad's shadow, and reclaim Lebanon for the Lebanese. If a single car bomb succeeds in reversing these gains, no leader - now or future - will be able to steer Lebanon away from the cliff towards which it veers.