There are several conspiracy theories swirling around about the reasons for Wissam al-Hassan’s assassination (and even about whether or not he was even killed in the explosion on Friday…Some are apparently claiming that he was actually killed on the border between Turkey and Syria, and that the explosion last week was a false flag operation meant to pin the crime on Syria. Umm, ok.)
I would like to focus on one particular theory, though, that does not seem too implausible. It concerns the arrest of Michel Samaha, which, as I mentioned in my piece for the NY Times a couple days ago, was rather surreal.
Think about it. A high-profile Lebanese politician is hauled into custody in a spectacular way, with stacks of video and audio evidence demonstrating his involvement in a sinister plot. And unlike the arrest of the four generals for the Hariri assassination in 2005, there was no significant backlash from Samaha’s allies in Lebanon. The evidence assembled by Wissam al-Hassan was clearly so significant that no one — not Hizbullah or Miqati or anyone besides Jamil al-Sayyid — came to his defense. It almost felt as though al-Hassan was daring anyone to defend Samaha just so that he could splash all the dirty details across the headlines.
And yet, for all the evidence mounted against Samaha – including an apparent confession which implicated Bashar al-Assad himself in the plot – something seemed amiss. Why would the Syrian regime have chosen a sixty-four year-old political operative, even one as loyal as Samaha, to be an explosives mule? Had Syrian intelligence fallen on such hard times that it was reduced to conjuring up espionage from individuals with no relevant experience?
On the other hand, perhaps Samaha was the perfect choice — not by Damascus, but by Wissam al-Hassan himself – to lure into a bomb plot along with his Syrian handlers. The whole affair had more than a whiff of entrapment about it, a brilliantly plotted ambush by al-Hassan which Samaha and his overlords unwittingly walked into.
For that matter, Jamil al-Sayyid, who is said to have been in the car with Michel Samaha when he conducted his bomb run, may have similarly been a perfect target for such a sting. Why? Because both al-Sayyid and Samaha are political has-beens, itching to get back into the inner circle. They were once powerful and influential individuals, but today they are bit players on a political stage that has been totally transformed.
A few weeks ago, I recorded an interview for Bloggingheads with my friend Camille Otrakji. When I asked Camille what he thought about the Samaha arrest, he said that some of his contacts in Syria and Lebanon were speculating that Samaha could have been duped into carrying the explosives by a high-ranking member of the Syrian intelligence community who had secretly defected to the opposition. This person would then have tipped off the Lebanese authorities about the “plot”, leading to an arrest that was very damaging to the Syrian regime. (See here for the clip where Camille makes this case).
I have to admit that I found this theory pretty implausible when Camille proposed it, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that it should not be rejected out of hand. Obviously, we’re all just groping around in the dark, but something about the surreal and spectacular quality of the arrest and the amount of evidence that accompanied it (including the confession) seemed strange.
This doesn’t mean that Samaha is innocent. Even Jamil al-Sayyid admits that Samaha “made a mistake” and transferred explosives. What I wonder, however, is at what stage the Information Branch entered the picture. How soon did they get wind of the plot, and what was the mechanism? Could Samaha have been set up from the very beginning (as Camille’s contacts are suggesting)?
It’s important to recognize that even by the high-wire standards of Wissam al-Hassan’s career, such a gambit would have been incredibly dangerous, and out of step with the role he had cultivated for himself as an intermediary between Damascus and Beirut, Hizbullah and Hariri. Whether or not the Samaha affair was a sting operation from the outset, Hassan had to have known that the arrest and the media circus that followed it would have likely burned his bridges with Syria and its allies forever.
Curious to hear people’s thoughts.