Commentators and columnists are agreed. Pierre
Gemayel's assassination must have been the handiwork of Syria because his Christian
Phalangists have been long-time allies of Israel and because, as industry minister,
he was one of the leading figures in the Lebanese government's anti-Syria faction.
President Bush thinks so too. Case, apparently, settled.
Unlike my colleagues, I do not claim to know who killed Gemayel. Maybe Syria
was behind the shooting. Maybe, in Lebanon's notoriously intrigue-ridden and
fractious political system, someone with a grudge against Gemayel – even
from within his own party – pulled the trigger. Or maybe, Israel once again
flexed the muscles of its long arm in Lebanon.
It seems, however, as if the last possibility cannot be entertained in polite
society. So let me offer a few impolite thoughts.
As anyone who watches TV crime series knows, when there is insufficient physical
evidence in a murder investigation for a conviction, detectives examine the
motives of the parties who stood to benefit from the crime. Better detectives
also consider whether the prime suspect – the person who looks at first
sight to be the guilt party – is not, in fact, being turned into a fall guy
by one of the other parties. The murderer may be the person who benefits most
clearly from the crime, or the murderer may be the person who benefits from
the prime suspect being fingered for the murder.
As most of our politicians and the media's commentators have deduced, suspicion
falls automatically on Syria because the Christian Phalangists are one of Syria's
main enemies in Lebanon. Partly as a result, they have opposed recent attempts
by Syria's main ally in Lebanon, the Shi'ite group Hezbollah, to win a greater
share of political power.
They are also – and this seems to clinch it for most observers –
part of the majority in the pro-American government of Fuad Siniora that supports
a United Nations tribunal to try the killers of Rafik Hariri, an anti-Syria
politician and leader of the Sunni Muslim community, who was blown up by a car
bomb more than a year and a half ago.
After all six Shi'ite ministers walked out of the Siniora cabinet two weeks
ago, and now with Gemayel's assassination, the government is close to collapse,
and with it the tribunal that everyone expects to implicate Syria in Hariri's
murder. If Syria can "bump off" another two cabinet ministers and
the government loses its quorum, Syria will be off the hook – or so runs
the logic of Western observers.
But does this "evidence" make Syria the prime suspect or the fall guy?
How will Syria's wider interests be affected by the killing, and what about
Israel's interests in Gemayel's death – or rather, its interests in Hezbollah
or Syria being blamed for Gemayel's death?
In truth, Israel will benefit in numerous ways from the tensions provoked by
the assassination, as the popular and angry rallies in Beirut against Syria
and Hezbollah are proving.
First, and most obviously, Hezbollah – as Syria's main political and military
friend in Lebanon – has been forced suddenly on to the back foot. Hezbollah
had been riding high after its triumph over the summer of withstanding the Israeli
assault on Lebanon and routing an invasion force that tried to occupy the country's
Hezbollah's popularity and credibility rose so sharply that the leaders of
the Shi'ite community had been hoping to cash in on that success domestically
by demanding more power. That is one of the reasons why the six Shi'ite ministers
walked out of Siniora's cabinet.
Despite the way the Shi'ite parties' political position has been presented in
the West, there is considerable justification for their demands. The system
of political representation in Lebanon was rigged decades ago by the former
colonial power, France, to ensure that power is shared between the Christian
and Sunni Muslim communities. The Shi'ite Muslims, the country's largest religious
sect, have been kept on the margins of the system ever since, effectively disenfranchised.
With their recent military victory, this was the moment Hezbollah hoped to
make a breakthrough and force political concessions from the Sunnis and Christians,
concessions that indirectly would have benefitted Syria. With Gemayel's death,
the chances of that now look slim indeed. Hezbollah, and by extension Syria,
are the losers; Israel, which wants Hezbollah weakened, is the winner.
Second, the assassination has pushed Lebanon to the brink of another civil
war. With a political system barely able to contain sectarian differences, and
with the various factions in no mood to compromise after the spate of recent
assassinations, there is a real danger that fighting will return to Lebanon's
This will most certainly not be to the benefit of Lebanon or any of its religious
communities, who will be dragged into another round of bloodletting. Hezbollah's
underground cadres who took on the Israeli war machine will doubtless have to
come out of hiding and will pay a price against other well-armed militias.
The benefits for Syria are at best mixed. A possible benefit is that a bloody
civil war may increase the pressure on the United States to talk to Syria, and
possibly to invite it to take a leading role again in stabilizing Lebanon, as
it did during the last civil war.
But, given the continuing ascendancy of the hawks in Washington, it may have
the opposite effect, encouraging the US to isolate Syria further.
Conversely, civil war may pose serious threats to Syrian interests – and
offer significant benefits to Israel. If Hezbollah's energies are seriously
depleted in a civil war, Israel may be in a much better position to attack Lebanon
again. Almost everyone in Israel is agreed that the Israeli army is itching
to settle the score with Hezbollah in another round of fighting. This way it
may get the next war it wants on much better terms; or Israel may be able to
fight a proxy war against Hezbollah by aiding the Shi'ite group's opponents.
Certainly one of the main goals of Israel's bombing campaign over the summer,
when much of Lebanon's infrastructure was destroyed, appeared to be to provoke
such a civil war. It was widely reported at the time that Israel's generals
hoped that the devastation would provoke the Christian, Sunni and Druze communities
to rise up against Hezbollah.
Third, Syria is already the prime suspect in Hariri's murder and in the assassination
of three other Lebanese politicians and journalists, all seen as anti-Syrian,
over the past 21 months.
The US exploited Hariri's death, and the widespread protests that followed,
to evict Syria from Lebanon. Syria's removal from the scene also paved the way,
whether intentionally or not, for Israel's assault this summer, which would
have been far more dangerous to the region had Syria still been in Lebanon.
Despite the looming threat of the UN tribunal into Hariri's death, from Syria's
point of view the accusations have grown stale with time and threatened to prove
only what everyone in the West already believed. With the walk-out by the Shi'ite
ministers from the Lebanese government, the investigations were looking all
but redundant in any case.
Gemayel's assassination, however, has dramatically revived interest in the
question of who killed Hariri and brings Syria firmly back into the spotlight.
None of this benefits Syria, but no doubt Israel will be able to take some considerable
pleasure in Damascus's discomfort.
Fourth, the Israeli government has been under international and domestic pressure
to engage with Syria and negotiate a return of the Golan Heights, an area of
Syrian territory it has been occupying since 1967.
With it would be resolved the fraught question of the Shebaa Farms, still occupied
by Israel but which Hezbollah and Syria claim as Lebanese territory that should
have been returned in Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The status of
the Shebaa Farms has been one of the main outstanding areas of dispute between
Israel and Hezbollah.
President Assad of Syria has been hinting openly that he is ready to discuss
Israel's return of the Golan Heights on better terms for Israel than it has
ever before been offered.
According to reports in the Israeli media, Assad is prepared to demilitarize
the Golan and turn it into a national park that would be open to Israelis. He
would probably also not insist on a precise return to the 1967 border, which
includes the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Traditionally Israel's
leaders balked at this idea, and provoked popular fears by conjuring up the
vision of Assad's father, Hafez, dipping his feet in the lake.
But if negotations on the Golan are desperately sought by the young Assad,
Israel shows no interest in exploring the option. The Israeli prime minister,
Ehud Olmert, has repeatedly ruled out talking to Damascus. That is for several
Israel, as might be expected on past form, is not in the mood for making
it does not want to end Syria's pariah status and isolation by making
a peace deal with it;
and it fears that such a deal might suggest that negotiations with the
Palestinians are feasible too.
Peace with Syria, in Israeli eyes, would inexorably lead to pressure to make
peace with the Palestinians. That is most certainly not part of Israel's agenda.
Gemayel's death, and Syria being blamed for it, forces Damascus back into the
fold of the "Axis of Evil," and forestalls any threat of talks on
Fifth, pressure has been growing in the US Administration to start talking
to Syria, if only to try to recruit it to Washington's "war on terror."
The US could desperately do with local local help in managing its occupation
of Iraq. It is unclear whether Bush is ready to make such an about-turn, but
it remains a possibility.
Key allies such as Britain's Tony Blair are pushing strongly for engagement
with Syria, both to further isolate Iran – the possible target of either
a US or Israeli strike against its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons –
and to clear the path to negotiations with the Palestinians.
Gemayel's death, and Syria's blame for it, strengthens the case of the neoconservatives
in Washington – Israel's allies in the Administration – whose star
had begun to wane. They can now argue convincingly that Syria is unreformed
and unreformable. Such an outcome helps to avert the danger, from Israel's point
of view, that White House doves might win the argument for befriending Syria.
For all these reasons, we should be wary of assuming that Syria is the party
behind Gemayel's death – or the only regional actor meddling in Lebanon.