The Middle East Channel

The death of Lebanon's intelligence tsar

The February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will always be remembered as a seminal event that changed the course of Lebanon's history. It expelled Syrian troops from Lebanon after occupying the country for three decades and freed Beirut from the shackles of Damascus. While the killing of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last Friday is not likely to create the political tsunami that Hariri's murder did seven years ago, it certainly has the potential to cause some powerful shocks to an already shaky Lebanese system. Specifically, Hassan's assassination could lead to the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the explosion of Sunni-Shiite tensions, the violent mobilization of Lebanon's Salafists, and if things snowball, the country's return to civil war. Nobody can speak with confidence to the direction Lebanon will go following this massive security incident but all bets are that things in Lebanon will get much worse before they get any better.

It is hard to miss the irony of Hassan's fate. Seven years ago, he escaped death miraculously. As Hariri's closest intelligence advisor and office manager since 1995, he was supposed to be with the former prime minister in his motorcade as it passed by the Saint George hotel, ultimately to get blown up. But he was not accompanying Hariri, later explaining to the Lebanese press that he had to take an exam on that fateful day (an alibi many in Lebanon thought was strange). This time, however, he wasn't so lucky. Just like his former boss, he perished in a massive car bombing in Beirut that shattered his body into pieces.

Hassan was much more than the head of the information branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) Directorate. He was Lebanon's spy master, the man who knew all the country's secrets. Tasked with an impossible mission -- protecting a heavily penetrated and deeply polarized country from domestic and foreign enemies -- he performed superbly and exceeded expectations in a relatively short period of time. His death is an enormous loss to Lebanon and his absence will surely create a huge hole in an already compromised Lebanese intelligence and security apparatus. "The country is now totally exposed to all sorts of threats, he was Mr. Information," one of his aides told me in a teary voice over the phone two days after the attack.

No career civil servant in the history of Lebanon has done more than Hassan to promote the wellbeing of the country. He inherited a dilapidated ISF Directorate from the Syrian era and singlehandedly reformed it, bringing life and a sense of purpose to a once impotent security institution. Under Hassan's leadership, the ISF Directorate became the envy of its peers. His supervisor, ISF Director Ashraf Rifi, mentioned to me in his office not too long ago that Hassan revolutionized the craft of data collection and analysis with so few resources and so many political obstacles. Even Hassan's fiercest critics in the Lebanese press and political scene including Al-Diyar's Charles Ayyoub and Al-Akhbar's Ibrahim Al-Amin gave him credit for his unique achievements and unparalleled dedication to his job.

Hassan was somewhat of an oddity in the Lebanese confessional system, refusing to play by its rules and often ignoring the political and security consequences of his work (an attitude that ultimately led to his death). As the Lebanese daily The Daily Star rightly put it, he "didn't stop at the conventional red lines." Shortly after Hariri was killed in 2005, Hassan led an investigation into his assassination, covering critical technical information that led him to strongly suspect an operational involvement by Hezbollah. His findings were extremely useful to the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), created in March 2009 to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Hariri's murder. "Without Al-Hassan's data, we couldn't have done anything," one STL investigator told me in winter 2011.

The past two years marked Hassan's meteoric rise to prominence. In 2010, he ordered the arrest of former Lebanese Army Brigadier General and Free Patriotic Movement official Fayez Karam for spying for Israel and put him behind bars for two years before his allies secured his release. Two years later on the morning of August 9, in what must have been the boldest covert operation Hassan masterfully orchestrated in his short-lived career, he arrested former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha, a man with close ties to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks throughout the country on direct orders from Bashar. In the not so distant past, such arrests of pro-Syrian individuals were unthinkable in Lebanon and people like Samaha were simply untouchable because of their connections to Damascus.

Hassan made no secret of his vehement opposition to the Syrian regime and his loyalty to the Hariri family, but unlike other Lebanese intelligence and security chiefs who are hired to exclusively serve the interests of their communal leaders, he never let sectarian politics dictate his work or stand in the way of his goals. And his record proves it. From 2006 to 2010, he dismantled 36 Israeli spy rings, thwarted 24 bomb plots, and broke several Salafist jihadist cells. That is not the resume of someone who is firmly locked in one political camp against the other. Indeed, whether the threat came from Israel, Syria, al Qaeda, or any other source, Hassan made no distinctions.

Hassan also never hesitated to make politically costly and unpopular calls. In May 2008, he counseled then Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora not to issue an order to shut down Hezbollah's underground telecommunications network and fire airport security chief Walid Choucair, an ally to the Shiite group, because he knew full well the repercussions of such a decision. And he was right. As it turned out, Hezbollah reacted violently to Siniora's directives by taking over the western part of Beirut (a move viewed as nothing less than a coup by its political rivals) and following talks in Doha forced the creation of a new government in which it secured veto powers. During Hezbollah's seizure, it was Hassan who calmed tensions on the ground and coordinated closely with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to stop the bloodshed and extinguish the fires of Sunni-Shiite strife.

But to his opponents, it almost didn't matter that Hassan was a consummate professional and a true patriot, and it seemed to make no difference what he did or did not do. Because of the unforgiving nature of Lebanon's sectarian and divisive politics, he was always perceived and treated by his political adversaries -- primarily Hezbollah -- as a major security operator in the March 14 coalition. In fact, he was viewed as its ultimate guardian, which made him a prime target. That Hassan was close to the Hariris and Saudi Arabia obviously did not help erase this perception. Throughout his career, he established cooperative relations with Arab and Western intelligence services but developed an especially good rapport with Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Riyadh's spy chief and architect of its national security strategy and foreign policy toward Iran and Syria. Bandar relied on no other person or institution in Lebanon but Hassan for sensitive information and analytical reports. "Riyadh has just lost its eyes in Beirut," one Qatari diplomat told me over the phone hours after news that Hassan's assassination was confirmed.

It is almost pointless to ask who killed Hassan. Most Lebanese are convinced that the Syrian government eliminated him because he supported the Syrian opposition, chased down Assad's cronies in Lebanon, and knew too much about the string of assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese individuals that have rocked Lebanon since 2005. That this accusation and others before it may never be proven is irrelevant at this point (the closest to a smoking gun was held by Hassan himself, which might explain why his enemies wanted him dead). The more relevant questions are what political consequences this heinous crime will usher and whether Lebanon will completely lose its delicate balance.

Much will depend on the reaction of the leadership of the March 14 coalition and more importantly their regional allies, including Saudi Arabia. There have been strong condemnations, protests across the country, clashes in Tripoli, anger in the streets of Beirut, and even attempts to storm the governmental palace, but things could have been much worse, and behind this relative restraint on the part of Lebanon's Sunni community are arguably Riyadh's own rational calculations for Lebanon. In short, Saudi Arabia has no interest in starting an open war with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which will most likely lead to a widespread Sunni-Shiite conflict, an outcome that will benefit the Syrian regime. The kingdom is hurt by the loss of a crucial ally in Hassan, but it will most likely bite the bullet (as it did with the killing of Hariri) and focus on working with its regional allies to take on the Syrian regime by continuing to sponsor elements in the Syrian opposition.

Saudi Arabia's wishes and interests notwithstanding, there is an X-factor in Lebanon that could turn things upside down and alter Saudi Arabia's foreign policy designs, and that is the popular Sunni sentiment in the country, led today by a furious Salafist community. Hariri's presence outside Lebanon for personal safety reasons has created a leadership void in Sunni politics over the years which the Salafists have tried to fill, with more successes than failures. While still disorganized, small, and lacking heavy arms, the Salafists, especially their more radical and militant figures that have links to al Qaeda, can stir the pot by igniting confrontations with Hezbollah. To compensate for their military weaknesses, they can form alliances with Syrian rebels operating in Lebanon. The goal would not be to disarm Hezbollah but to provoke the Shiite group enough to react militarily and cause an armed clash that might push regional players including Saudi Arabia to intervene. This would be an ambitious feat, but one that outraged Salafists who see this struggle as an existential one might pursue nonetheless.

To stop this snowballing effect and any attempts by the Lebanese Sunni street to force its hand, Saudi Arabia will urge Lebanese Prime Minister Mikati to step down (Mikati has already expressed his intent to do so but President Michel Suleiman asked him to postpone his decision to prevent total political collapse and deal with immediate security needs on the ground). Other regional and international powers that have a vested interest in preventing further chaos in the region and keeping Lebanon in one piece including Qatar, Turkey, the United States, and even Iran will most likely come up with a negotiated arrangement that creates a relatively neutral government in Beirut until parliamentary elections in 2013. Iran will probably not object to this proposal simply because it does not cause major harm to Hezbollah. Indeed, so long as the next government is not totally anti-Syrian, Hezbollah can live with a technocratic government for the next few months. Furthermore, Hezbollah has every interest in containing Sunni wrath in the streets and in avoiding conflict with a community that has been on the rise in the region since the start of the Arab uprisings, and one way to do that is by agreeing to bring the Sunnis back to government. While it will not be easy to find a "neither March 14 nor Hezbollah" prime ministerial candidate in such heated and polarized political times (ironically Mikati was supposed to be that person), one likely contender is Tamam Salam, a former parliamentarian and minister of culture who hails from an old Lebanese political family that produced his father, Saeb Salam, a politician who served six times as prime minister between 1952 and 1973.

So long as Syria is burning, there will always be a risk that civil war will return to Lebanon. Yet civil war requires that at least two sides have the manpower, will, money, and arms to fight. Hezbollah has all those things, but Lebanon's Sunnis have little of each, unless they form alliances with other groups and decide to take on the Shiite party. Their regional sponsors also have no appetite in starting a war they cannot finish and might open the gates of hell in the entire Middle East. Because of the mess in Syria and the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, the situation in the region is extremely combustible. Cooler heads will most likely prevail in Riyadh and instruct their allies in Beirut to remain calm. The Saudi (and Qatari) focus shall remain on Syria, the real prize whose fate will change the entire security architecture of the Middle East. Lebanon will be asked to keep absorbing hits until the chips fall in Syria. But how much more Lebanon can take without completely breaking is anybody's guess.

Bilal Y. Saab is visiting fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.  

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The Middle East Channel

Arab politics is not all about us

When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent. Still, it seems strange that Republicans want to remind voters that President Barack Obama extricated the United States from a difficult and unpopular war in Iraq. But that is just what Peter Feaver did in the Foreign Policy blog Shadow Government on October 12. He said that the president had opened up a "civil-military problem" for himself, because "significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq." He went on to accuse the administration, and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, of blowing the chance to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, either through incompetence or a lack of serious commitment, that would have permitted the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. Those are some pretty stiff charges. (Full disclosure: Feaver and I went to graduate school together. He is a great guy, but just plain wrong here.)

We can set aside, for this discussion, the big question about whether keeping that many U.S. troops in Iraq would have been a good thing. It is pretty clear what the American people think the answer is. The interesting thing about Feaver's thumbnail account of the supposed failure of the administration on this issue is the utter absence of Iraqis from the story. When the United States fails to achieve a goal, it must be either because we really were not committed to it, or we messed up. The other guys just are not that important. It really is all about us.

A brief review of Iraqi politics indicates precisely the opposite. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki very much wanted to be the Iraqi politician who negotiated the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pushed the Bush administration to conclude the original timetable for U.S. withdrawal in 2008. President George W. Bush agreed in September 2008 to set a hard deadline of the end of 2011 for complete U.S. withdrawal (undercutting his party's presidential candidate, John McCain, who strongly advocated a continued presence in Iraq, in the process). Maliki would not accept any wiggle room in the deadline or the completeness of the withdrawal. He knew how unpopular the U.S. military presence had become among his constituents, particularly Shiite Arab Iraqis. Kurds and some Sunni Arabs might have felt differently, but Maliki knew his voters. He held up the agreement as one of the signal achievements of his rule when he ran to retain the prime ministry in the Iraqi elections of 2010.

It was the results of that election that sealed the fate of any U.S. effort to re-open the case for a continued U.S. military presence. Iyad Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition won two seats more than Maliki's State of Law group in the election, but neither achieved a majority. Had they been able to set their personal differences aside (their platforms were not that far apart), and had Maliki been willing to take the junior role in a partnership (as required of the smaller party), they might have been able to form a strong majority government. But that was not to be. Allawi flubbed his chance to put a parliamentary majority together without Maliki. Maliki stubbornly held on to his office. In the end, Maliki accepted a political deal brokered in Tehran that returned him to the prime ministry with the support of Shiite political groups closely aligned with Iran, like Muqtada al-Sadr's followers and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Once that coalition was formed, no U.S. diplomatic effort, no matter how skillful and concerted, was going to convince Maliki to alter the original withdrawal agreement and allow a substantial U.S. force to stay. Maliki was not so inclined anyway, but with the backing of Iran so central to his return to power, there was no conceivable set of inducements Washington could offer Maliki to move him off his position. Doing so would have jeopardized his hold on the prime ministry. One might criticize the Obama administration for not being more active in trying to broker an Allawi and Maliki coalition in the first place. But once Maliki's ruling bargain was set in Tehran, the game was up. The United States gave Iraq the democracy it has. Now it has to live with it.

Feaver ignores the realities of Iraqi politics in his criticism of the Obama administration's Iraq policies. If this were simply a lacuna in one academic's analysis, it would not be of much interest. He and I could argue this in the pages of musty academic journals. But this analytical flaw, making everything just about us, has become characteristic of Republican criticism of the Obama administration's Middle East policy more generally.   

During the October 16 presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney criticized President Obama's reaction to the Benghazi attack and his Middle East policy more generally, saying: "The president's policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes." (He posted a clearer statement of his belief about the reason for the problems in the Middle East on his website on October 1: "President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy.") Earlier on debate day, on National Public Radio (NPR), Romney Middle East advisor Dan Senor said that the attack in Libya is "not an isolated incident." He linked it to the Iranian nuclear program, the fighting in Syria, and other protests against the United States across the Middle East. For Senor, all of these things (specifically Iran, by inference the others) have a single cause: "We have lost credibility." For both the governor and his advisor, events in the Middle East are all about us, not about trends and dynamics within the region itself.

This is a particularly shallow and superficial view of the challenges facing the United States, not only in the Middle East, but around the world. If we were to accept the logic that threats to the United States come primarily from a lack of American credibility and firmness, we would also have to believe the following:

  • The attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 were because Ronald Reagan was weak and lacked credibility.
  • Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait in 1990 because George H. W. Bush was weak and lacked credibility.
  • Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 because Bill Clinton was weak and lacked credibility.
  • Al Qaeda attacked the homeland on September 11, 2001 because George W. Bush was weak and lacked credibility.

These conclusions are patently ridiculous. All of these events stemmed from both deep regional causes and immediate tactical decisions by local players. They had very little, if anything, to do with whether the U.S. president in office was "strong" and "credible," whatever those adjectives might mean in this context. Likewise, the attack in Benghazi is all about the deep currents in the region that produced the Salafi jihadist movement, of which al Qaeda is the most notorious example, and the difficult transition in revolutionary Libya, where the state was never strong and militias dominate the security picture. It would have happened no matter who was in the White House, even Mitt Romney. It was directed at us, but it is not all about us.

One can understand why Dan Senor takes the position he does. He is a spinmeister, and his job is to spin for his boss in an election campaign. He really does not know much about the Arab world, so he could not be expected to understand its complexities. His only substantial experience with it was as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He sat in the Green Zone and told reporters how well everything was going while the country descended into hell. Even then, for him it was all about us, and not about the Iraqis. That kind of analysis might be expedient in an election campaign, but to actually base U.S. policy in the Middle East on it is a path to disaster, as the Bush administration's Iraq policy demonstrated. If we are going to support our friends, confront our enemies, and deal prudently with that vast group of people in between in the region, we better pay attention to what is actually driving their politics. And it isn't American "credibility."

F. Gregory Gause, III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.