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Syria’s Assassination Goal: Target March 14th Christians To Divide & Conquer

By Andrew Cochran

Phillip Smyth is the the CT Blog's Assistant Newslinks Editor and a contributor to the Aramaic Democratic Organization. He spent 2 months this summer in Lebanon talking with and interviewing anti-Hezbollah NGOs in addition to Hezbollah supporters. He wrote the following about the direction of recent assassinations in Lebanon.

In the effort by the Syrian backed opposition’s hope to block any anti-Syrian candidate to the office of Lebanese president, Lebanon is expected to undergo a number of Damascus backed political murders. "Lebanon, during this period, could witness … a new series of assassinations and explosions carried out by an organized network that had been mentioned in the last report by U.N. investigator Serge Brammertz," noted Emile Khoury in the Beirut daily An Nahar. While the targeting of anti-Syrian officials has included Muslims as well as Christians, the murder of Christian leaders often leads to more gains for Damascus. Because the Christian community is split down the middle between Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), aligned with Hezbollah and Syria and opposed by the pro-Western (March 14th Movement) Kataeb and Lebanese Forces (LF), in any subsequent election, there is a chance for Syria to acquire a “democratically elected” Christian ally in a newly murdered anti-Syrian minister’s place. The resulting election of a pro-Syrian candidate adds to Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon and the Lebanese democratic process. Simply put, by killing an anti-Syrian Christian there is a bigger chance that in their place a pro-Syrian Christian can takeover their position, a proverbial, “killing two birds with one stone.”

Take the case of Pierre Amine Gemayel, son of former president Amine Gemayel, MP and a prominent member of the Kataeb party. On November 26th Gemayel was shot to death by a hit squad with connections to the PFLP-GC, a Syrian backed Palestinian terrorist group based in Lebanon, leaving his Metn province seat open. Despite calls for a consensus by religious leaders, the FPM’s Michel Aoun insisted on running his candidate Camille Khoury. While the race was close, the resulting electoral battle cost March 14th the seat and won Syria more influence. Compared to the split Christians, Sunni Muslims are mostly united behind Saad Hariri’s (son of assassinated Rafiq Hariri) Mustaqbal Party. Additionally the Druze are, for the most part, united behind Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). While the Metn election turned into a tough battle for the March 14th Movement, the assassinated Sunni Muslim Walid Eido’s (a March 14th MP) seat was also open; in the subsequent election another March 14th candidate easily took his place.

Even if the pro-Syrian groups lose in a bid to take over an assassinated Christian March 14th parliamentary seat, the resulting anger between Christians has the possibility to boil over into open fighting. Even before the election I witnessed three fist fights between LF and FPM members. Following the Metn election, FPM gunmen shot a Kataeb supporter. As in the 1970s and 1980s Syria hopes to provoke some form of fighting with the hope that anarchy would develop. Damascus could then play savior, come in and “clean up” the mess it created. Historically Syria has used terrorism to effect disunity, in 1982 president elect Bachir Gemayel’s assassination fundamentally weakened the Christian resistance causing splits. This subsequently led to Christian warlord Elie Hobeika signing the Damascus sponsored Tripartite agreement; something that would be unheard of if Bachir Gemayel wasn’t killed.

This last fall included Kataeb MP Antoine Ghanem’s murder by car bomb in Beirut’s Sin el Fil neighborhood. Ghanem represented the Lebanese district of Aley, another heavily contested area that the pro-Syrian groups may hope to wrest control of in an election. With Ghanem’s death and the presidential election still delayed, the Kataeb party now controls no seats in Lebanese parliament. A once powerful anti-Syrian Christian party is now forcibly pushed to the sidelines. If this trend of assassinating Christian politicians whose seats can be taken by pro-Syrian groups continues more Christian MPs will be assassinated. While Syria’s arch enemy the LF currently holds 6 parliamentary seats, its seats are about as secure as those held by Mustaqbal. However, the LF’s independent allies represent areas (especially in Zgharta) where top Syrian allies such as Soleiman Franjieh have enormous influence. Elections following yet another Syrian sponsored murder in those areas could result in a pro-Syrian win.

Syria’s pragmatism in assassinating Lebanese political leaders knows no bounds. As the pro-Syrian bloc (the Shi’ite Amal and Hezbollah, including the Christian FPM and Marada) continues to block any attempt at a presidential election, they are merely stalling in order to provoke another killing of a March 14th MP. The moment the pro-Syrian groups can whittle away March 14th’s majority status and achieves one-third control of the parliament, there will be little hope of a true anti-Syrian president sitting in Baabda Palace. Syria will do its best to make its terrorist policies pay. With each assassination Damascus wants results in the polls, with the direct elimination of a critical politician, the fear instilled in the Lebanese populace and leadership and in the hopeful reacquisition of Lebanon.

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