10/21/2012 11:25 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2012

Subverting Lebanon, and Broader Middle East

Those responsible for killing Lebanon's internal intelligence chief, Wissam Al-Hassan, clearly aimed to stop his effective work and further destabilize Lebanon. With the constant threat of spillover from Syria's conflict, Lebanon has been approaching a historical crossroads. Al-Hassan's assassination accelerates this process and could potentially prove the turning point. The stark choice facing Lebanon is either allowing sectarian polarization to exacerbate hostilities or opt for a new start in Lebanon's narrative. It should be marked by an earnest shift toward greater national unity and confessional reconciliation and overcoming differences in the long term. Simply muddling through only increases the risk of a potential descent into the abyss at any given moment.

Whereas achieving a cease-fire in Syria proves elusive, Lebanon's greatest immediate challenge is maintaining order and preventing the outbreak of violence, particularly in the country's north. As dynamics on the ground remain fluid, communal leaders must responsibly urge restraint and contain potential fallout. The slightest spark could trigger a vicious downward cycle. Political infighting only benefits certain external powers who use Lebanese as proxies to advance their own interests.

The crisis in Lebanon begs the inevitable question: Who killed Wassim al-Al-Hassan? Despite publicly condemning the killing, Syria's Assad regime unexpectedly remains the prime suspect. In his effective pursuit of Lebanon's national security, Al-Hassan made a long list of enemies. He recently uncovered an alleged plot involving a Lebanese legislator, and former minister, colluding with the Assad government to destabilize Lebanon through a bombing campaign. The deceased intelligence chief led an investigation that implicated Syria and Hezbollah officials in the 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Al-Hassan also dismantled an Israeli espionage ring operating inside Lebanon.

The current crisis also demands the question of whether Lebanon will ever be a normal country. Skeptics may insist that Lebanon is not even a nation but purely a product of cartographic convenience. It was inherently flawed from inception and will never achieve real nationhood. The divisions are simply too great and external incentives for sectarian leaders to remain divided are even greater. The merits of such arguments could be largely determined by the outcome of events in the coming days, weeks and months.

For now, Lebanon officially remains a nation, at least on paper. Due to its geographical location and size, it will always be subject to outside influence. A key question is how intelligently Lebanon's leaders can manage such pressure and constructively use their differences as an asset to reverse the tide to their advantage. Attempting to reduce external sway to the lowest levels possible is an enormous and ongoing task. It requires profound skill and a strong sense of collective identity. In Lebanon, there is no short supply of the former but a severe shortage of the latter.

Failure to find an alternative to outside exploitation of Lebanon's differences will only prolong and complicate the status quo to the detriment of ordinary Lebanese and broader regional order. Furthermore, populist rhetoric and provocations by leaders and citizens will only contribute to further destabilization. Ultimately, positive change in Lebanon can only take place through shared responsibility, courage and action across the confessional spectrum.