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    Middle East
     Nov 28, 2006
Playing with death in Lebanon
By Mark LeVine

In the wake of the latest political assassination to rock Lebanon - last week's shooting of Pierre Gemayel, a scion of one of the foremost Christian Maronite political families - suspicion fell on the Syrians, and perhaps Hezbollah, as the most likely culprits.

There is some logic to this view, given Syria's likely involvement in the assassination in February 2005 of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Gemayal's is the fifth assassination since Hariri's; most



every victim was critical of the Syrians, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah.

But even if we grant that Syria was behind Hariri's assassination, and there is very good evidence to support this assessment, it is hard to see what Syria or Hezbollah gains from Gemayel's killing. Syria is in a stronger regional position than it has been in years. The administration of US President George W Bush has been forced to eat crow and contemplate negotiations with Damascus to gain its help in easing the insurgency in Iraq. Syria's main sponsor, Iran, is similarly in its strongest geostrategic position in decades, and its ally Hezbollah emerged as the political winner of this summer's war with Israel.

So why would Syria risk upsetting this favorable balance by killing a Maronite politician when Hezbollah had already bolted the government and was threatening massive demonstrations to bring down the post-Cedar Revolution political arrangement in favor of one that would better reflect its - and thus Syria's - increasing power? The same  question can be asked of those who would link Hezbollah to the Gemayel assassination, which sapped the energy out of its latest political machinations.

Of course, even if neither Syria nor Hezbollah had much to gain from Gemayel's assassination, it's not hard to imagine Bashar al-Assad or Hassan Nasrallah miscalculating the impact of such an act, as the Syrian president might well have done if he in fact ordered Hariri's assassination, and the Hezbollah leadership admitted doing when they kidnapped two Israeli soldiers this past July on the assumption that Israel's response would be in keeping with the rules of the game then in place.

But before we look to who might have miscalculated in ordering the hit on Gemayel it's worth asking who actually benefits from his assassination. And from this perspective the one party that clearly benefits from Gemayel's murder is the Israeli government. 
Israel was the main loser in the summer war, at least politically and strategically. The country's leaders began threatening a new round of fighting even before they began pulling troops out of the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah's postwar ascendence was the most visible and troubling sign of Israel's seemingly unprecedented military weakness and strategic blundering.

Pulling off an assassination like this, which is by no means beyond Israel's ability, would serve several goals. First, it would turn the chaos that Hezbollah was trying to create in the Lebanese political system against it. Instead of Hezbollah managing the postwar chaos to strengthen its position, the movement is now forced on to the defensive and must react to a new dynamic in which Christians (with the exception of the breakaway Michel Aoun faction) and Sunnis are more united than ever in their desire to block Hezbollah's takeover of the system.

Second, if Lebanon descends into civil war, which is a frightening if still distant possibility, Hezbollah would in effect be neutralized, and Israel could rely on Maronites and perhaps Sunnis to attack Hezbollah without Israel facing the international condemnation it received during the war.

Third, suspicion against Syria - and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has publicly accused Damascus of being behind the assassination  - has already stopped the momentum towards normalization with the Assad regime by Europe and the United States in order to bring it on board in Iraq. As important, if the crisis deepens, it will foreclose the possibility that the Bush administration (now under the tutelage of the only American diplomat to stand up to Israel since Dwight Eisenhower, James Baker) would force Israel to negotiate a deal for the Golan Heights in the near future.

It is true that the Gemayel family and Maronite community more broadly was once aligned to Israel; but that was a generation ago. The Maronites proved unable to maintain power in Lebanon or serve Israel's interests. Pierre Gemayel's uncle, Bachir, was assassinated days before he was to assume the country's presidency in 1982, and his father, Amine, was unable to cement a peace treaty with Israel because of Syrian pressure. The unofficial alliance was abandoned once it was clear that Israel's days in Lebanon were numbered.

Participating, or otherwise benefiting from the killing of an old ally at a moment when the blame would be placed on one's enemies may seem far-fetched, but at least as far back as the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu "to mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy" has been one of the most well-regarded axioms of warfare. The death of Pierre Gemayel could well push Lebanon to the brink of civil war and lead to further alienation of Syria and Hezbollah from the international community. This might well be the unintended consequence of actions taken by either party; but if the question is to be asked "Who benefits from Pierre Gemayel's assassination?", it is hard not to include the Israeli government among the parties which have the most to gain from the scenario now unfolding in Beirut.

Mark LeVine, PhD, is a professor in the department of history, University of California-Irvine.

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