Three Camps on Gemayel Murder and Syria

Jordan's King Abdullah, who is about to meet President Bush and PM Maliki, insists that the US open a dialogue with Syria. According to the Washington Post, King Abdullah said that "The United States needs to look at the "total picture" and be ready to talk with all parties in the area — including Syria and Iran — about a wide range of issues." He warns that the region faces three civil wars. (see article copied below) Not surprisingly, Jordan believes the insipient Palestinian civil war deserves attention first. Not coincidentally, the cease-fire in Gaza announced by Israel came on the eve of Bush and Cheney's visits to the region, demonstrating how much influence the US still has over that conflict, perhaps the only dispute in the region where US authority is still strong.

In declaring the cease-fire, Israel and the US are hoping to shore up support from their friends in order to better avoid negotiating with their enemies: Syria and Iran. Thus it is significant that both Jordan and Egypt are insisting on wider negotiations, despite Washington's efforts to draft them into a Shiite-Sunni war.

Husni Mubarak says it is too early to say who was behind the assassinations in Lebanon, in an attempt to encourage engagement.  مبارك: "من السابق لأوانه تحديد هوية مرتكبي الاغتيالات" في لبنان

We don't know what Saudi Arabia has asked Cheney for yet, but if Jordan and Egypt are asking for regional talks, it is a good bet that Saudi cannot be far behind, despite its struggle with Damascus for primacy in Lebanon. Michael Slackman of the NYTimes writes today that Saudi officials in Lebanon have met with Hezbollah’s general secretary, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, hoping to orchestrate a compromise. There should be room for both Saudi and Syrian influence in Lebanon as there was during the 1990s. It is not optimal from a Saudi point of view, but at this point there is no victory for Saudi in Lebanon, which is headed for eventual economic crisis  if the two powers cannot come to agreement and force the Lebanese to some power-sharing arrangement that gives the Shiites a larger share of the pie and undercuts the Hariri investigation, which Damascus regards as a declaration of war against it.

Three opinions on the Gemayel murder 

At issue in the engage-Syria-debate is the question of who killed Gemayel. Three camps seem to be emerging.

1. The first is from the "I want regime change in Syria crowd." They see the Gemayel murder as Syria fulfilling a scorched earth campaign in Lebanon. They argue that Syria is a third rate power that can be swatted away with one hand if only Washington has the will and is not duped by the realists. They do not advocate a Lebanese solution to the assassinations other than to develop militias and fight. Walid Phares is a main proponent of this school of thought. He argues that the US must take action against Syria to defend the March 14 revolution in Lebanon and keep its promises. Otherwise, Syria will build a Tehran on the Mediterranean. In his latest op-ed he argues:

The answer is clear. The United States and the new Congress must be implacable in resisting the onslaught of terror and fascism in the Middle East. When cynical politicians, interest groups and apologist academics call for the appeasement of Iran and Syria, resist them. When a population is endangered and its leadership is being eliminated, assist them. Will the new Washington rise to the occasion?

The Wall Street Journal is pushing this argument. Today it published an editorial, " The New Middle East: The Bush administration, Syria and Lebanon," decrying the lack of resolve by the President. Here are the choice quotes:

The mistakes [of the Bush administration] include a decision not to respond to Hariri's murder by seeking regime change in Syria, as none other than the French were urging at the time… Predator strikes against terrorist bases in Syria were ruled out… The [summer] war was incompetently prosecuted by the Israelis, but a few more weeks of fighting might have destroyed the Shiite group as a military organization and thus spared Lebanon its current predicament.

The Administration has also failed to lend any meaningful support to the National Salvation Front, the leading Syrian opposition group, apparently because it includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as former regime elements. But as Ammar Abdulhamid, a leading member of the NSF who is also a secular democrat, points out, "controversial figures will always be involved in opposition work. You can't look at [the NSF] as a change to the most wonderful democratic system in the world. But you do need to break the stalemate and introduce a new dynamic."

According to one Washington insider, non-Syrian Arab diplomats in Washington believe Syria is on the march: 

A lot of arab diplomats here (non syrian) think syria is sending a message to the US on Iraq: we will help you in Iraq but give us back Lebanon; that the Golan is secondary in their interests to the cash cow of Lebanon.   

2. The second opinion holds that if Damascus arranged the assassination, it may be premature to characterize the action as stupid.The question here is what Syria's priorities are — to open a dialogue with the US, or to achieve national security objectives of facilitating the return of suzerainty in Lebanon and blocking the international tribunal.The assassination of Gemayel could have been aimed as a warning to the March 14th Movement that it is pointless to resist the Syrian counterattack – that all of the Movement's leaders are vulnerable and that neither the US nor the UK can do anything to resist the incoming tide of restored Syrian suzerainty. 

If Syria is willing to jeopardize its Washington opening in order to take Lebanon back, it may also have calculated that President Bush was not serious about dialogue with Syria in the first place. Why else would Washington encourage the opening of the National Salvation Front in Washington or have Bolton continue to lead the charge to place the Syrian regime in the international dock, even before the publication of the final UN investigative report? Only the President can make foreign policy and he remains confident of victory in Iraq as does his vice President. The odds are that they are merely letting the squabbling functionaries in Washington jaw, jaw, jaw while the real men continue their war, war, war.

Damascus seems to have a very different view than Washington about who is winning in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. 

Damascus would undoubtedly like to see the Bush administration take “regime change” off the table once and for all, but one must wonder just how badly the regime leaders are worried about it or pining for engagement with the US. They may have reached the conclusion that the US is in deep trouble in Iraq, is unable or unwilling to press Israel for enough concessions to effectively wave smelling salts under the nose of the Fahad Plan, reviving it from its deep swoon.

They may also have concluded that Washington has shot its wad in Lebanon. It tried the multilateral French approach, but no amount of American good behavior and legal maneuvering could seduce Europe and the international community into placing sanctions on Syria. Syria didn't buckle under pressure and produce a Musharraf-type coup. And when diplomacy didn't work, Washington called out its big gun and unleashed Israel on Hizbullah and the namby-pamby Lebanese government. But Hizbullah could not be defeated and the Lebanese government could not be given a backbone, so what is left for Washington? It can encourage the Hariris and Geageas to play Geronimo and go down fighting, but to what end? It would be as if King Solomon decided to cut the baby in half. In short, Bashar and company may be thinking that perhaps the Americans need diplomatic engagement with them at least as much as they need it with Washington. 

Many pro-American Lebanese suggest that they are already resigned to losing this round. President Bush's expression of support for Siniora, while being politely received, is also being discounted. The things the US said and things it failed to do during the July-August war left fewer and fewer Lebanese looking to the US for substantive help. As one US diplomat recently concluded, "Perhaps it's best that Lebanese really aren't counting on us for anything."

The test of Damascus' wager will be whether it accomplishes its national security goals of regaining suzerainty and scuttling the establishment of an international court. 

If Syria’s top national security objective is the opening of a dialogue with the USG, then it probably did not kill Gemayel.

3. The third argument is that Syria was not behind the murder at all. 

Ian Mather, writing in the Scotsman, quotes Ha'aretz's Zvi Barel to suggest that Syria may not have been behind the Gemayel assassination.  

Others, even in Israel, are not so sure that the Syrian government itself was involved, finding it hard to see how Syria could possibly benefit from the killing. Zvi Barel, Arab affairs analyst of the daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, said that Syria was in the midst of chalking up significant diplomatic points that could only be harmed if it were shown to be involved in another political assassination.

Damascus had just renewed full diplomatic relations with Iraq and was on its way to achieving a semi-official stamp of approval from Washington as a positive influence in Iraq. It was also on the verge of seeing the fall of Siniora's anti-Syrian government in Lebanon.

"With three such achievements," Barel wrote, "the last thing Damascus needed was a new accusation of political murder in Lebanon." He suggested it might have been a rogue action carried out by one of Syria's intelligence arms. "If that is true, it puts President Assad in an embarrassing position, with elements of his regime working behind his back."

Yet the most significant reaction was that of Bush, who stopped short of accusing Damascus of killing Gemayel. The inside word from Washington is that Assad is at last enjoying the resumption of what Syrian embassy spokesman Ahmed Salkini calls "unofficial contacts" with the US administration.

Patrick Seale in his November 25, Gemayel, Syria, Israel and the War in Iraq , gives the most powerful expression to the "It's not Syria" argument. He writes: 

There are two main theories about who killed Pierre Gemayel in Beirut on Tuesday – one points the finger of blame at Syria, the other at Syria's enemies.

Both theories are plausible. But, such is the murky nature of Lebanon's politics and the murderous intrigues of foreign powers that it would be exceedingly rash, in the absence of firm evidence, to plumb for one or the other.

As may be seen, Lebanon's unfortunate fate is to be a battleground between Syria and Israel for dominance in the Levant.

This past summer Israel, encouraged by the United States (and with the tolerance of Britain), mounted an all-out assault against Lebanon in an attempt to destroy Hezbollah and bring Lebanon into the Israeli-Western camp. The attempt failed.

Hezbollah and its allies – who include General Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who broke ranks with his community – have been pressing for the replacement of the Siniora government by a government of national unity, in which they would have what they consider their rightful place.

Their case is that only such a government can unify the country, heal the sectarian divide and rebuild Lebanon after Israel's devastating assault.

Syria's enemies argue vociferously that the killing of Pierre Gemayel, ahead of the publication of the Brammerz report, was a pre-emptive move by Damascus to derail the formation of a special international tribunal to bring Rafik Hariri's killers to justice.

Plans for the tribunal were finalised by the UN earlier this week but still need to be approved by the Lebanese government and indeed by the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Bringing down the Siniora government would clearly doom the tribunal futility.

This is the prime argument of the anti-Syrian camp which includes Sunni Muslims led by Sa'ad Al Hariri, bent on avenging his father; Walid Junblatt, leader of the Druze community, who has come out stridently against Syria's President Bashar Al Assad; and Gemayel's own Phalanges libanaises – partners in the "March 14 movement".

Denouncing Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon's affairs, they have no doubt that Pierre Gemayel's killers were acting on orders from Damascus.

Alternative Theory

There is an alternative theory, which is equally plausible, in which the more likely culprits are Israel and its local agents. Those who advance it ask who benefits from the crime. Certainly not Syria and its Hezbollah allies who, to their great embarrassment, now find themselves denounced once again as criminals before world public opinion.

This accusation of a new heinous murder comes just at a time when Syria was on the point of re-engaging with Europe and the United States and when Hezbollah was hoping to reap political rewards.

The murder of Pierre Gemayel has had the immediate effect of paralysing Hezbollah and throwing it on the defensive: it can no longer consider bringing its supporters out on the street in peaceful demonstrations, as it had planned and announced, to press its demand for a national unity government.

Similarly, the murder is a grave setback for Syrian diplomacy. It occurred when Syria's foreign minister, Walid Al Muallem, was in Baghdad where he announced the resumption of diplomatic relations between Syria and Iraq, after a breach of a quarter of a century.

At the same time, Iran called for a tripartite summit of Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian presidents to help end the appalling violence in Iraq.

By these moves Syria and Iran were signalling that Iraq's neighbours could not be excluded from an eventual settlement in Iraq; that they were able and ready to play a constructive role; and that they were, in fact, key players with whom the United States needed to engage if it was to find an honourable exit from the Iraqi quagmire.

Damascus and Tehran are also seeking to convey the message that peace in Iraq will necessarily require a withdrawal of US troops; that the Iraqi problem cannot be separated from other conflicts in the region; and that a global settlement will involve resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

To the alarm of hardliners in Israel and in the United States, these ideas were beginning to make their way in American and European opinion. Calls for a global settlement were coming from many quarters, including last week from the leaders of Spain, France and Italy.

Even Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has seemed to distance himself from Washington in stressing the need for a "whole Middle East strategy", with priority given to the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

In these circumstances, it seems hardly likely that Syria – eagerly seeking dialogue with the West, emerging from isolation, and pressing hard for the US to re-launch the Middle East process – would put all this in jeopardy by ordering a squalid murder of a relatively unimportant Lebanese politician.

On the other hand, Syria's enemies – Israel and its Lebanese agents first among them – would have every motive to seek to check Syria's return to international respectability and to prevent the restoration of Syrian influence in Lebanon, even in a milder form than before.

These then are the rival theories. Both Israel and Syria have in the past resorted to murdering their political opponents. Israel continues to do so routinely in the Palestinian territories.

Which of the two is guilty this time? Hard evidence either way will not be easy to find. But until it is found, it would be wise to suspend judgment.

Leo Brincat, the Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malta and the Council of Europe Rapporteur for Lebanon, expresses an opinion typical of a growing European consensus that holds that even if Syria were involved in the murder, the US must engage Damascus because Washington has no stick big enough to stop the growing Syrian influence in Lebanon. Only a brokered deal between the two countries can limit potential chaos or civil war. He believes Washington must try to lock in the most favorable deal for Lebanon it can using diplomacy and carrots. Only this will protect the increased independence from Syria that Lebanon has gained over the last two years. He describes Syria as a strong regional power and not a weak one, as the neocons do. He writes:

I think that although the Lebanese hate the Syrians and would not want to turn the clock back they are going to have to make some compromise.

Unless it falls apart, Lebanon has got to find a modus vivendi with Syria…

The lesson from this messy scenario is that powerful states, even if perceived as or described as rogues, cannot simply be ignored, particularly if they have sharp claws. Simply ignoring these states is not an option.

Finally here are the thoughts of Kind Abdullah:
Jordan's King Abdullah Says Three Civil Wars Face Middle East
By Nadine Elsibai

Nov. 26 (Bloomberg) — Jordan's King Abdullah warned that the Middle East is facing a crisis, with the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq at the brink of civil wars.

“We could possibly imagine going into 2007 and having three civil wars on our hands,'' Abdullah said on ABC's “This Week'' program today. “It is time that we really take a strong step forward as part of the international community and make sure we avert the Middle East from a tremendous crisis.''

President George W. Bush will wrestle with the increasing sectarian violence in Iraq when he meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan Nov. 29-30 for talks held under Abdullah's auspices. Militant Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has threatened to withdraw from the Shiite parliamentary coalition and the government if Maliki, a fellow Shiite, meets with Bush.

Abdullah said restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is his top priority because the “emotional impact'' of the problem “can be translated to the insecurity and frustrations throughout the Middle East and the Arab world.''

Palestinians fired rockets today at Israel after a cease- fire agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went into effect, raising doubts about how long the truce can hold.

Palestinian `Core'

Abdullah said he hopes to address the “core issues'' of creating a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians in addition to offering help to the Iraqi people during his meetings with Bush. Abdullah also noted that Americans must look at the Middle East “in the total picture'' because “it's not just one issue by itself.''

“I keep saying Palestine is the core. It is linked to the extent of what's going on in Iraq. It is linked to what's going on in Lebanon. It is linked to the issues that we find ourselves with the Syrians,'' Abdullah said. “There needs to be a plan that brings all the parties together, and bring them today and not tomorrow.''

Lebanon faces a revival of sectarian conflict that may involve neighboring Sunni-dominated Syria, and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a militant Shiite group that the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization. The Nov. 21 assassination of cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, a Christian politician who had been critical of Syria, further added to tensions.

Cracking Down

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who will be No. 2 Republican leader in the Senate beginning in January, said Bush should “be very aggressive and specific'' in telling Maliki to crack down on Iraqi militias such as Sadr's during the meeting in Jordan.

“We're reaching a critical point,'' Lott said on the “Fox News Sunday'' program. Bush should consider withdrawing U.S. troops if Maliki doesn't take strong action, he said.

Lott also questioned whether Maliki's government can survive in the face of the mounting violence. Maliki's leadership has “not been encouraging, to say the least,'' Lott said.

The Bush administration is seeking partners in the Middle East to help stabilize the region. A panel created by Congress and headed by former Secretary of State James Baker III is pulling together recommendations for a possible shift in U.S. policy in Iraq, to be made public next month.

Senator-elect Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican, said on CBS's “Face the Nation'' that Bush should talk directly to Syria and Iraq in an attempt to resolve the Iraq war.

“We have to talk with all the players in the region,' Corker said, noting that, while Syria may have played a role in last week's assassination of Gemayel in Lebanon, and “they are our enemy in many regards, we have to engage people in the region.''

Siniora insists Cabinet approval of tribunal 'was not a provocation'

Comments (54)

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51. why-discuss said:

Akbar Palace

“In any case, they can all be disputed quite easily, because they aren’t as smart as they claim to be;)” NEITHER ARE YOU! WE KNOW WHAT YOU ARE..

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November 30th, 2006, 7:05 pm


52. Akbar Palace said:


Yes, well, sorry to say, Israel is a country and Palestine is not. Not to say that the Palestinians shouldn’t have their own country, but they have to earn it.

As a border dispute, for Palestine to have an international border, she has to negotiate with Israel. Right now, the PA doesn’t recognize Israel (neither does Iran, but that’s anther jihadist story). Further, when the PA claimed to recognize Israel, the violence and incitement continued and the intifada raged on.

Perhaps if the Palestinian Decomcracy votes in a party willing to negotiate with Israel and sign a peace treaty, then the Palis can work with Israel to create a new Middle Eastern economic power-house.

Despite what the Nasrallahs and Yassins of the Islamic world say, I think this would be the better alternative.

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November 30th, 2006, 8:31 pm


53. annie said:

Akbar has decided to camp here day and night and will manage to deviate any useful discussion with his digressions into israeli business. Halas, I don’t answer him anymore.

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December 1st, 2006, 5:18 pm


54. Akbar Palace said:

Dear Annie –

Apologies. It was not my intention to “deviate any useful discussion” or “digress”.

What would you like to discuss? Zionist hegemony?

Perhaps we can discuss Syrian freedom and economic development? Professor Josh probably has a lot of interesting information on this.

Or maybe we can discuss Hezbollah’s position on Iranian-Lebanese and Syrian-Lebanese cooperation?

Your call.

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December 1st, 2006, 5:25 pm


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