Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The brazen assassination yesterday of Christian Cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel has pushed Lebanon’s fragile democracy, heralded by the United States as a model for the region, to the brink of collapse.

Coming amid moves by Syria and Iran to improve relations with Iraq, the killing also was seen by analysts as part of a coordinated attempt to push the United States out of the Middle East.

“This is part of a broader effort on the part of Syrians and Iranians in their own isolation to prove they have leverage over events in the region and to minimize the role of the U.S. in the region,” said former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Marc Ginsberg.

Suspicion immediately focused on Syria, which stands to be deeply embarrassed by a proposed international tribunal that would investigate its suspected role in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005.

The U.N. Security Council approved plans for the tribunal hours after the killing yesterday, but it must still be approved by a weakened Lebanese government.

“We can add this to the list of Syrian killings of anti-Syrians in Lebanon,” said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Mr. Gemayel was the fifth anti-Syrian figure killed in the past two years.

“There is obviously a concern that a U.N. investigation would be so thorough and comprehensive it will get to the bottom of who killed Hariri and the other murders in Lebanon, and obviously there are some people very nervous about that,” Mr. Schenker said.

Syrian officials denied any involvement in the latest assassination, which rattled a Lebanese government already battered by a wave of Cabinet resignations and the threat of street demonstrations by Hezbollah.

“Syria had nothing to do with this,” said Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari.

But Amal Mudallali, foreign affairs adviser to the head of Lebanon’s largest parliamentary faction, said Mr. Gemayal’s killing had been carefully planned.

“The assassination is aimed at stopping the international tribunal,” she said. “It is the second time they have killed a Lebanese politician when the U.N. Council was meeting on Hariri — it is not a coincidence. …

“This is a struggle for the future of Lebanon and it is being written today and the Lebanese people are writing it with their blood,” she said.

Following the walkout of five Hezbollah and one Christian minister on Nov. 11, the death of Mr. Gemayal leaves the anti-Syrian Cabinet with just one member more than the minimum to maintain a constitutional quorum.

“In Lebanon you are getting very close to bringing this government down,” said Mr. Schenker. “Only two more people out of 17 have to die.”

In broader terms, analysts saw the killing as part of a concerted effort by Iran and Syria to flex their muscles just as pressure is mounting in Washington for President Bush to seek their help in stabilizing Iraq.

Syria yesterday formally established diplomatic relations with Baghdad for the first time in 20 years, while Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is expected to travel to Tehran for talks as early as this weekend. Syria may also be represented at that meeting.

“Iran is projecting its power in the region and sending a message to the U.S.,” said Robert Rabil, director of graduate studies at the political science department at Florida Atlantic University.

“It is an assertion of Shi’ite politics, and the Islamists, led by Iran, are using Syria to project their power in the region. So now Iran has a say in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in Iraq now they have a strong say.”

Mr. Bush, in Honolulu on his way home from an Asian summit, stopped short of specifically blaming anyone for the assassination but pledged to defend Lebanon’s democracy “against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country.”

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said Washington viewed the murder as “an act of terrorism. We also view it as an act of intimidation.”

Hezbollah and its supporters quit Lebanon’s Cabinet on Nov. 11 after their demands for a larger role in the government were rejected. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed to take the group’s cause to the streets and bring down the government.

Mr. Ginsberg said it would be a fallacy to think that Sheik Nasrallah was acting for strictly domestic reasons.

“He is a pawn of Iran,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “It is like watching a chess player — Iran — begin playing some very good matches. We had better stop playing checkers or we are going to wind up handing the Middle East over to our adversaries.”

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