Is A Convenient Fallguy
For Gemayel's Death
By Jonathan Cook
24 November, 2006
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
crimes 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
fallguy 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 Shiite group Hizbullah, 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 Shiite 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 fallguy? 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 Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah
First, and most obviously,
Hizbullah -- as Syria's main political and military friend in Lebanon
-- has been forced suddenly on to the back foot. Hizbullah 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 south.
Hizbullah's popularity and
credibility rose so sharply that the leaders of the Shiite community
had been hoping to cash in on that success domestically by demanding
more power. That is one of the reasons why the six Shiite ministers
walked out of Siniora's cabinet.
Despite the way the Shiite
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 Shiite Muslims, the country's largest
religious sect, have been kept on the margins of the system ever since,
With their recent military
victory, this was the moment Hizbullah hoped to make a breakthrough
and force political concessions from the Sunnis and Christians, concessions
that indirectly would have benefited Syria. With Gemayel's death, the
chances of that now look slim indeed. Hizbullah, and by extension Syria,
are the losers; Israel, which wants Hizbullah 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 streets.
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. Hizbullah'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
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 stabilising 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 Hizbullah'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 Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah by aiding the Shiite
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 Hizbullah.
Third, Syria is already the
prime suspect in Hariri's murder and in the assasination 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
Shiite ministers from the Lebanese government, the investigations were
looking all but redundant in any case.
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 Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah.
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
According to reports in the
Israeli media, Assad is prepared to demilitarise 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 reasons:
* Israel, as might be expected
on past form, is not in the mood for making territorial concessions;
* it does not want to end
Syria's pariah's 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
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 the Golan.
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
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.
is a journalist and writer based in Nazareth, Israel. His book Blood
and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State is published
by Pluto Press. His website is www.jkcook.net
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