An Attack on Christians
by Stephen Schwartz
The brutal assassination of the Lebanese Christian politician Pierre Gemayel is a devastating blow to a country already in turmoil after this summer's Hezbollah war against Israel. Like Hassan Nasrallah's attack on the Jewish state, undertaken without any consultation with other Lebanese leaders, the killing of the 34-year-old Gemayel cannot but appear as an element in a 'strategy of tension' aimed at the destruction of a nascent democracy. In the United States, the administration immediately identified the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora as the main target of the terrorist act.
Syria, which more or less automatically appears as the main suspect in this and other Lebanese atrocities, including the killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, has officially denounced the killing of Gemayel as 'a despicable crime'. Many Lebanese — Christian, Muslim and Druze — have grown so to resent their 'big brother' that they will doubtless blame Syria. But it would seem to make little sense for Damascus to have done it, since it has just gained a psychological victory by re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iraq after 26 years.
Iraq and Syria had adopted a new, joint approach to the abatement of terrorism in the territories under Baghdad's authority. The bad blood between the Iraqi and Syrian Baathists was little understood in the West. Although both countries were ruled by branches of the Baath party, little love was lost between these two branches. The Syrian Baathist regime is dominated by a military caste historically associated with the Alawite sect, an Islamic tradition emerging from Shiism, but so heterodox in its theology that many Shias doubt it can be included in the Islamic global community, or umma.
The Iraqi Baath was and remains a legacy of Sunni dominance in Iraq. In addition, the break between Syria and Iraq a quarter of a century ago was motivated by Syrian sympathy for Iran in the war between Tehran and the Saddam dictatorship. Notwithstanding reams of disinformation, there is little evidence that Syria encouraged Sunni violence in Iraq.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what serious contribution Syria could make to the normalisation of life in Iraq — except to build a high physical barrier that would prevent Sunni jihadist recruits, most of them Wahabis from Saudi Arabia, from exploiting Syria's porous border. (Saudi Arabia has, finally, ordered the construction of a security fence along its extended border with its northern neighbour, to cut off direct infiltration to the terror front.) But before Syria can be expected to contribute positively to the stabilisation of Iraq, it must satisfy the world that it will contribute even more to peace in Lebanon.
Who, aside from the Syrians, could be serious suspects in the death of Pierre Gemayel? Hezbollah would, of course, be the second on most lists. In the logic of Sheik Nasrallah's Mussolinian march to power, yet another unexpected assault on Lebanese peace makes sense. Such a move would illustrate a distinction between Islamofascism as a form of established state ideology, such as we see in Saudi Arabia, and Islamofascism as a roadmap to dictatorship. Muslim intellectuals in the Middle East do not, let it be noted, huffily reject the term 'Islamofascism' as a slur on their religion, as British and US Muslim leaders are wont to do. As one authoritative Iranian told me, 'There is clearly a fascistic reading of Islam, and it is absurd to deny it. Western academics may believe fascism is limited in space and time, but we Muslims who have experienced fascist tendencies in the Islamic world know better.'
Sheik Nasrallah brought war to northern Israel and southern Lebanon in a demonstration of an unscrupulous will to power. Most recently, he has called for street protests against the Siniora administration. Because Shia Muslims will never constitute an overwhelming majority in Lebanon, as they do in Iran, Hezbollah cannot expect to establish a clerical state in Beirut. But it can still rule, even indirectly — by pushing all other political forces aside. Nasrallah would not be the first political adventurer to gain power by destroying his extremist peers and rivals.
It is precisely the multiconfessional nature of Lebanese society that makes the killing of Gemayel so dangerous. Rafik Hariri was a Muslim, and the probability that he was killed on the order of other Muslims was disturbing. But Gemayel was the scion of a leading political dynasty among Christians — and the probability that a Muslim group killed a Christian leader is nothing less than terrifying. Pierre's grandfather, also Pierre, was founder of the right-wing and authoritarian Phalange party, and his relatives served in various Lebanese governments.
The killing of Pierre Gemayel, who was industry minister, is a slap in the face of every Lebanese who seeks peace and a chance for democracy, but it is, unquestionably, mainly an attack on the security of Christians. It is therefore reasonable also to consider the Sunni terrorists in Iraq, al-Qa'eda, and their backers in Saudi Arabia as major suspects.
When Rafik Hariri was killed, responsibility was claimed by Wahabi extremists in Lebanon, although there was little mention of it in the Western media. In addition, Saudi dissidents pointed out the connections of the Hariri family to the Saudi royal family, and argued that he had been liquidated in anticipation of the death of Saudi King Fahd. Fahd died, after years of lingering, immobilising illness, less than six months after Hariri's murder, and much of his wealth was managed by Hariri. This led to suspicion about a prospective fight among Fahd's successors over the spoils — with Hariri caught in the crossfire.
The United Nations has carried out an investigation of the Hariri death, and the Siniora government only last week approved Lebanese participation in a UN tribunal to try Lebanese and Syrian suspects. That decision was taken against the strenuous objection of pro-Syrian ministers in the Beirut government, including Shias — and six ministers resigned. Though it would be too easy to consider the Gemayel hit a follow-up to the disagreements over the Hariri tribunal by the Shia radicals, some observers will doubtless argue the case.
Al-Qa'eda in Iraq has long threatened to spread its terror campaign to Lebanon, and would, as in Iraq, show no hesitation in killing a leading Christian. In the United States, Syrian responsibility for the death of Gemayel is taken by many as something close to a given. There is cynicism in the air. Insiders in Washington were this week speculating sourly about James Baker's Iraq Study Group, due to report next month. The question was being asked: will Baker and co now advocate a new approach by the US to Syria and Iran? Will they be less keen to open up dialogue?