The high-profile assassination of an anti-Syrian government minister has sparked tensions in an already tense Lebanon. Pierre Gemayel, the industry minister, was assassinated last Tuesday whilst driving his car. The killing marks the most high-profile political assassination since the death of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February of last year.
The shooting came just hours after the UN security council announced its approval of a tribunal to try those accused of the murder of the former Prime Minister.
Officially, the identities of the assailants are a mystery, but numerous conspiracy theories are abundent – not only from members of the public and media, but from governments too. Prime Minister Tony Blair was among the few who did not couple his condemnation with an implicit accusation, commenting that it underlined the “urgent need for a strategy for the whole of the Middle East”. President Bush was less neutral, pledging to “defend their [Lebanon] democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country”. Anti-Syrians have been blaming the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah “triangle”, whilst pro-Syrians deny Syrian involvement, and even point the finger at Israel.
There were fresh fears that this could be a precursor for something more serious. John Bolton, the United States ambassador to the UN, claimed that this may be the “first shot” in an attempt by “Syria and Iran, acting through Hezbollah” to stage a coup against the Lebanese government.
Syria has been a constant presence in Lebanon in some form or another in the last 29 years. It was only forced to pull out of the country last year, in the aftermath of the Hariri’s assassination and a wave of international protests.
Lebanese politics have been paralysed between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian blocs, reaching a high-point after the UN’s conclusion of Syrian involvement in Hariri’s murder. Six pro-Syrian ministers resigned over the cabinet’s support for a UN tribunal to try those accused. This political crisis seems to be perpetuated by those who seek to bring fown the Lebanese government.
But politicians shouldn’t rush to pre-judge the investigation. Just because the assassins are likely to be pro-Syria does noy mean that they represent that country in any meaningful way. Any attempt to label Syria as the perpetrator, particularly by high-ranking US officials, must surely be bad news for those who wish to engage with Syria and Iran, to help smooth the situation in Iraq.
The Iraq Study Group, which reports next month, is likely to recommend diplomacy with Syria and Iran as a means of heading off a civil war in Iraq. Any anti-Syrian sentiment from the United States is certainly not a good omen.