Lebanon is returning to an all-too-familiar-game. On Oct. 19, a large explosion shook Beirut, killing senior Lebanese security official Gen. Wissam al-Hassan and unleashing a round of sectarian street battles across the city.
Among those who speak out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, an instinctive reaction kicked in. I went down my list of family and friends, trying to reach my loved ones, until Hassan's death was announced.
The assassination of Lebanon's director of security intelligence has sparked an angry reaction in Beirut, one the current government has proven powerless to control. His funeral on Oct. 21 devolved into clashes between security forces and anti-Assad protesters who tried to push their way into the prime minister's office. The violence continued into this week, with deadly skirmishes between protesters and the military in both the capital and the northern city of Tripoli. It is hard to see how the country can return to the status quo that existed before Hassan's killing.
In truth, Hassan had been a dead man walking for some time. In August, he uncovered a Syrian plot to export the Assad regime's troubles through a bombing campaign against its fragile neighbor. The case implicated Syria's national security advisor, a top aide to President Assad, and a former Lebanese minister with close ties to Damascus. The evidence was overwhelming: Hassan not only seized the explosives that would have been used in the plot, but presented video and audio footage of the perpetrators discussing the operation.
Hassan had gone where no other Lebanese security official dared -- and as a result, he was living on borrowed time. Like Gebran Tueini, the late publisher of Lebanon's anti-Syrian An-Nahar newspaper, he was tailed upon arriving at Beirut Airport and car-bombed within hours of his return home.
This is not only a Lebanese tragedy, but one precipitated by the world's lack of action to Syria's 19-month revolt. In Washington, critics of President Barack Obama's approach have long warned that continued U.S. inaction will surely lead to contagion -- broadening the conflict to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and, of course, Lebanon. In fact, while Hassan's killing represents a watershed moment when the Syrian conflict jumped the border into Lebanon, it is far from the first time that Syria has provoked chaos among its neighbors. Most notably, Syria has repeatedly shelled Turkish border villages, given Kurdish insurgents a free hand to carry out cross border attacks from its territory, and even downed a Turkish fighter jet. These provocations have largely gone unanswered, and are undermining U.S. influence, and that of its allies, in the Middle East.
To put it bluntly, the Middle East cannot wait for Washington to emerge from its electoral hiatus. And while Republican nominee Mitt Romney has sharply criticized Obama's Syria policy, he has yet to offer much beyond campaign rhetoric. It is incumbent on the United States to show greater leadership in a part of the world that remains vital to its interests, and in which its Arab, Turkish, and European allies are all urging it to do more.