Murder in a melting pot

The assassination of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel has created waves of anger and pain among the Christians in Lebanon. Will it lead to a bloody civil war in an already ravaged landscape?Harsh Dobhal Delhi Still reeling under massive destruction caused by US-supplied weaponry, Lebanon is once again on the brink of yet another bloody civil war. Never before has this tiny and beautiful country witnessed such an intense level of political crisis, sharp polarisation and political mobilisation on sectarian lines. Seldom has this country looked more fragile. The assassination of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel has created waves of anger against Syria, widely blamed to be behind the killing, and triggered angry and massive protests on the streets in Beirut. Gemayel, a Christian, was shot dead in broad daylight in a Christian suburb of Beirut. The murder has pitched the West-backed Lebanese government against Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian groups, always tussling for control of this country. Syria and Iran have been backing the Hezbollah, which has become a strong political and military factor in the fractured politics of Lebanon. The assassination has taken place in the backdrop of the US-backed Prime Minister Fuhad Siniora’s move to give its final approval to an international tribunal created by the UN for the trial of suspects in the killing of former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. Syria was blamed for that killing, too. The UN commission, already looking into the murder of Hariri, will take on the inquiry into Gemayel’s killing, who is the fifth anti-Syrian Lebanese politician to be killed in the last two years. His murder has acutely intensified the prevailing political crisis. As many as six pro-Syrian cabinet members, all Shiites, have resigned from Siniora’s cabinet. In the event of death or resignation of two more ministers, the government will be brought down, something Hezbollah till now has been trying hard to do by means of street protests and a concerted campaign. Predictably, there is a huge George Bush-led international outcry over Gemayel’s murder. Barely months after aiding Israel to bomb Siniora’s Lebanon for 34 days, killing over a thousand civilians and maiming many more, Bush has promised “to support the Siniora government and its democracy”. In his typical doublespeak, Bush has pledged support for “Lebanese independence” from what he described the “encroachments of Iran and Syria”. His ‘war-crime ally’, Tony Blair, squarely blamed for delaying a ceasefire that could have saved hundreds of lives, contributed his bit, “We need to do everything we can to protect democracy in Lebanon.” While Lebanon is painfully trying to rebuild its infrastructure as thousands of wounded are still languishing in hospitals, it has been plunged into another crisis, this time a possible civil war aided by vested interests. While most Western observers, as also Lebanese, have blamed Damascus for the latest killing, a close analysis reveals that neither the Hezbollah nor Syria or Iran stand to gain out of the killing. The blame on Syria is based on the fact that Christian Phalangists, a political group led by the Gemayel family for decades, is Syria’s main enemy in Lebanon. And that the UN tribunal to try the killers of Hariri would most likely implicate Syrian officials for the murder. The Hezbollah, which has been staging anti-government protests to bring down the cabinet, is now expected to probably put off its campaign, thereby going on the backfoot soon after riding a political high after its dogged resistance during the Israeli assault. One wonders, therefore, how would this killing serve Syria’s or Hezbollah’s interests? Indeed, what about the US and Israeli interests being served from sharp tensions that the killing has provoked across Lebanon? Anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah rallies on the streets of Beirut are testimonies to this fact. Thus, the sinister mystery is thickening: who could be behind this murder? If at all any party stands to gain, it is Israel, and thereby the US, which would find it easier to woo anti-Syrian political groups and others in the region and thereby the Jewish state could plan another attack in the name of wiping Hezbollah off the map.A religiously divided country, Lebanon has always baffled outsiders. Experts on West Asia have found it confusing to analyse its politics. The nation is not only a melting pot of a diverse cultural heritage, but also a battlefield, where regional rivalries are played out. Hostile neighbours have often fought their wars on Lebanese soil for too long now.Home to about 60 per cent Muslims and 40 per cent Christians, with 18 recognised religious sects, sharing of power between these sects is an intricate affair that the West and Islamic countries have exploited to their advantage. This religious diversity and complicated power-sharing, coupled with backing of different groups by different vested interests, combines into an explosive factor that has always kept Lebanon on the edge of a potential internal war. The Muslims here have tended to look for support from other Arab states and from Iran, while Christians have historically tilted towards Europe and the US. The Lebanese decision to give refuge to Palestinian refugees through the 1970s and the country’s physical proximity to Israel ties the nation, in a rather complicated manner, to long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. Political polarisation is sharp with Syria and Iran-backed Shia groups dominated by Hezbollah forming one broad alliance, and a loose combination of Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze (an offshoot of Islam), backed by the US, comprising the opposite formation. This polarisation is reflected in the fact that the president is a Muslim while the prime minister is a Maronite Christian, essentially anti-Syrian. This system of political representation was introduced decades ago by Lebanon’s former colonial master, France, to ensure that power is shared between Christians and Sunni Muslims, keeping Shiite Muslims, the largest religious sect, on the political margins. In this backdrop, the Hezbollah’s threat to bring down what it calls a US-backed government in Lebanon and the assassination of Gemayel have created an explosive situation. The tremors will be felt in the whole of West Asia, including in Iran, battle-ravaged Iraq, where thousands continue to die, and ever bleeding Palestine, under Israeli occupation. A civil war would understandably deplete the Hezbollah’s strength. It will directly benefit Israel, which would look for a favourable time to attack Lebanon again. Israel may also choose to fight a proxy war by aiding anti-Hezbollah, anti-Shiite groups. Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqis in a society ravaged by civil war and US-UK occupation, are becoming refugees and fleeing to Syria and Lebanon. For the US, which had exploited Hariri’s killing by plotting the anti-Syria campaign, and, finally, the exit of Syrian forces from Lebanon last year, this is yet another ‘golden opportunity’. Washington has been reportedly preparing to bomb Iran next summer. As journalist Semyour Hersh has reported, the White House hawks, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, have been planning to bomb Iran with or without the approval of the US Congress. Like Vietnam, Iraq has reached a point of no return. Even veteran war-monger (branded by critics as a ‘war criminal’ who should be tried) Henry Kissinger has woken up and claimed that a military victory in Iraq is impossible. The same man had written in August 2005 that “victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy”. Will Lebanon witness another bout of  sectarian violence? In the backdrop of anti-Syria, anti-Iran polarisation, will the cornered and discredited Bush-Blair team play its final, desperate trump card, soaked in the blood of innocents? Or will sanity, peace and justice prevail? Time will tell.