Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Crisis in Lebanon: Who Benefits?: Gemayel, Syria, Israel and the War in Iraq

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Crisis in Lebanon: Who Benefits?: Gemayel, Syria, Israel and the War in Iraq

Article excerpt

THERE ARE TWO main theories about who killed Pierre Gemayel in Beirut on Nov. 21-one points the finger of blame at Syria, the other at Syria's enemies. Both theories are plausible. But, such is the murky nature of Lebanon's politics and the murderous intrigues of foreign powers that it would be exceedingly rash, in the absence of firm evidence, to plumb for one or the other.

Gemayel, 34, was a member of a prominent Maronite family which, for the past 70 years, has championed the cause of Lebanese independence under Christian leadership, in opposition to Arab nationalists who advocated pan-Arab unity under Muslim leadership-or simply close ties between Lebanon and its Syrian hinterland.

Impressed by what he had seen of Nazi youth movements at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Gemayel's grandfather, Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, founded the Phalanges libanaises (in Arabic, the Kata'ib). As both a political party and a Christian paramilitary force, it has played a major, if controversial, role in Lebanese politics from the 1930s to the present day.

In 1982, Sheikh Pierre's son, Bashir, collaborated with Israel in its invasion of Lebanon and was elected president, only to be assassinated shortly afterward by a member of a pan-Syrian party. Bashir's brother Amin succeeded him as president and, with American backing, concluded a separate peace with Israel in May 1983, which would have put his country into Israel's orbit.

Syria mobilized its local allies against the accord and managed to abort it. Israeli forces, however, remained in occupation of south Lebanon until 2000, when they were finally driven out by Hezbollah, a resistance movement of the Shi'i community, allied to Syria and Iran.

True to his family's heritage, Amin's son, the young Pierre Gemayel who was killed this week, was a minister in Fuad Saniora's anti-Syrian government, itself a product of the parliamentary majority which emerged as a result of popular revulsion at the murder in February 2005 of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri-a murder for which Syria and its local allies were widely blamed.

Headed by a Belgian judge, Serge Brammerz, a commission of enquiry into Hariri's murder is expected to publish its findings within the next month or two. Syria's enemies are confident Syria will be held responsible. Syria clamors its innocence and points the finger at Israel and its local agents.

As may be seen, Lebanon's unfortunate fate is to be a battleground between Syria and Israel for dominance in the Levant. The issue is far from resolved. This past summer, encouraged by the United States (and with the tolerance of Britain), Israel mounted an all-out assault against Lebanon in an attempt to destroy Hezbollah and bring Lebanon into the Israeli-Western camp. The attempt failed.

Hezbollah has emerged stronger than ever. It is, very probably, the single most powerful political and military force in Lebanon today. It remains the close ally of Syria and Iran-part of the so-called Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis which is determined to challenge American and Israeli regional hegemony, and indeed that of France in Lebanon as well.

Hezbollah and its allies-who include Gen. Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who broke ranks with his community-have been pressing for the replacement of the Saniora government by a government of national unity, in which they would have what they consider their rightful place. Their case is that only such a government can unify the country, heal the sectarian divide, prevent a lurch back into civil war-such as destroyed Lebanon between 1975 and 1990-and rebuild Lebanon after Israel's devastating assault.

Syria's enemies argue vociferously that the killing of Pierre Gemayel, ahead of the publication of the Brammerz report, was a pre-emptive move by Damascus to derail the formation of a special international tribunal to bring Hariri's killers to justice. Plans for the tribunal were finalized by the U. …

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