Lebanon on the brink

A political murder could spark a disastrous chain of events. The U.S. must help protect its fragile regime.

THE ASSASSINATION OF Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian member of Lebanon’s Cabinet and the scion of one of that country’s leading Christian clans, could lead to other casualties: the collapse of a pro-Western government in Beirut, a resurgence of noxious Syrian influence and the deflation of a trial balloon — only recently floated in Washington — for holding discussions with Syria and Iran about the future of Iraq. The worst-case scenario is another civil war.

It’s easier to lament that potential chain reaction than avert it. But the White House should try to rally other nations — including Syria, which denies any complicity in Gemayel’s death — around the fragile government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The Bush administration has stopped just short of explicitly accusing Syria of ordering Gemayel’s assassination. A State Department official called the killing “an act of intimidation,” and President Bush said it demonstrated “the viciousness of those who are trying to destabilize that country.” United Nations investigators were already looking into allegations that Syria was behind the 2005 murder of another anti-Syrian leader, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. On Wednesday, Siniora asked that the U.N. probe be expanded to cover the latest crime.

Supporters of democracy worldwide took heart when public outrage over Hariri’s assassination produced the so-called Cedar Revolution, a peaceful rejection of outside meddling that led Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Allowing an assassin to reverse what remains from that revolution is unacceptable. The U.N. has insisted that Lebanon’s neighbors respect its territorial integrity, and the cease-fire resolution that ended this summer’s Israeli-Hezbollah conflict assumed that the government in Beirut would exercise a national monopoly on military force.

Compared to other nations in the region, Lebanon has democratic credentials that predate the Bush administration’s campaign to transform the politics of the Middle East. The country operates under a constitutional tradition that balances political power precariously among the Christian, Muslim and Druze communities. But it has been obvious for at least 30 years that the political status quo gave disproportionate influence to the Christian minority, especially Maronite Catholics like the Gemayel family.

Not all the support for Hezbollah among Lebanon’s Shiite Muslims is the result of Syrian subversion. Hezbollah has capitalized on longfestering discontent about the distribution of economic and political power. Hezbollah also provides Shiite communities with a network of social services and spearheaded rebuilding in southern Lebanon after Israel’s attacks (though Hezbollah lost some points by provoking the invasion with its incursions into Israel).

The Lebanese political system is imperfect, to say the least. But it should not be overthrown by an assassin’s bullet, whoever gave the orders. If Syria wants to bolster its claim of innocence in Gemayel’s murder, it should discourage its allies in Lebanon — notably Hezbollah — from exploiting the murder. And any talk of the U.S. giving Syria a role in a regional peace process should be put on hold if Damascus had anything to do with the assassination, or uses it as an opportunity to ratchet up its influence in Lebanon.

Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2006

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~ by anick on November 26, 2006.

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