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Mark Levine Headshot

Who Killed Pierre Gemayel?

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In the wake of the latest political assassination to rock Lebanon--this week's shooting of Pierre Gemayel, a scion of one of Lebanon's foremost Maronite political families--suspicion was fallen on the Syrians, and perhaps Hezbollah as the most likely culprits.

There is some logic to this view, given Syria's likely involvement in the assassination in February 2005 of Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri. Gemayal's is the fifth assassination since Harriri's; most every victim was critical of the Syrians, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah.

But even if we grant that Syria was behind Harriri's assassination (and as I explained in a posting at the time, there is very good evidence to support this assessment) it is hard to see what Syria or Hezbollah gain from Gemayel's killing. Syria is in a stronger regional position than it has been in years. The Bush administration has been forced to eat crow and negotiate with Damascus in order to gain its help tamping down the insurgency in Iraq. It's main sponsor, Iran, is similarly in its strongest geostrategic position in decades, and its ally Hezbollah emerged as the political winner of this summer's war with Israel.

So why would Syria risk upsetting this favorable balance by killing a Maronite politician when Hezbollah had already bolted the government and was threatening massive demonstrations to bring down the post Cedar Revolution political arrangement in favor of one that would better reflect its--and thus Syria's--increasing power? And this question can be asked of anyone who thinks that Hezbollah was somehow involved in or sanctioned the murder, which has sapped the energy out of its latest political machination.

As far as I can see, the only party that benefits from Gemayel's assassination is Israel. Israel was the main loser in last summer's war, at least politically and strategically. The country's leaders began threatening a new round of fighting even before they began pulling troops out of the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah's post-war ascendence was the most visible and troubling sign of Israel's seemingly unprecedented military weakness and strategic blundering.

Pulling off an assassination like this, which is by no means beyond Israel's ability, would serve several goals: First, it would turn the chaos that Hezbollah was trying to create in the Lebanese political system against it. Instead of Hezbollah managing the post-war chaos in order to strengthen its position, the movement is now forced onto the defensive and must react to a new dynamic in which Christians (with the exception of the breakaway Aoun faction) and Sunnis are more united than ever in their desire to block Hezbollah's takeover of the system. Second, if the country descends into civil war, which is a frightening, if still distant possibility, Hezbollah would be effectively neutralized, and Israel could rely on Maronites and perhaps Sunnis to attack Hezbollah without Israel facing the international condemnation it received during the war.

Third, suspicion against Syria--and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has publicly accused Damascus of being behind the assassination--has stopped the momentum towards normalization with the al-Assad regime and burying of the findings of the harriri assassination commission in consideration of the need to work with Syria on more pressing issues in Iraq. It will also likely end any pressure by the Bush Administration to negotiate a deal for the Golan heights (which the present government has given clear indications it's not in the mood to discuss).

It is true that the Gemayel family was once aligned to Israel; but that was a generation ago. And it was never more than an alliance of convenience for Israel, which the Israeli government abandoned once it was clear its days in Lebanon were numbered.

Killing an old ally at a moment when the blame would be placed on one's enemies may seem far-fetched, but at least as far back as the great Chinese military strategist Chang Tzu "to mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy" has been one of the most well-regarded axioms of warfare. The death of Pierre Gemayel could well push Lebanon to the brink of civil war and lead to further alienation of Syria and Hezbollah; and from the strategic perspective of the Olmert government and a wounded Israeli military, that would be something to give thanks for indeed.