01/05/2014 11:18 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2014

The Shattah Assassination: A Message to Multiple Recipients

Several actors in the Middle East are taking advantage of the determination of the United States not to get drawn into the region's battlefields by imposing their own agendas in the first half of this year - before the maturity dates of top priorities on the calendar of the American policy, namely the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the dismantlement of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. The political negotiations that are supposed to be launched at the Geneva 2 conference for a transitional authority in Syria with full powers will not be a critical milestone, despite their importance. It is the military balance of power on the Syrian battleground that will require a devastating and bloody escalation. But it will not allow a decisive victory for the overly triumphalist regime in Damascus. An important event on the calendar will be the Syrian presidential election in June, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is gearing up to contest, relying on the backing of his Russian and Iranian allies. But Assad remains worried at the prospect of a Grand Bargain between his allies and the United States that could require sacrificing him. The pillars of the regime in Damascus are speaking with a discourse of overwhelming self-confidence, behaving with the arrogance of the victor with whom Western intelligence services are scrambling to coordinate in the war on terror in the Syrian theater.

Damascus's current strategy is based in part on encircling al-Nusra Front and similar al-Qaeda affiliates near the border with Turkey, to solicit a serious, concrete, and effective partnership with the Western powers -- not just Russia -- in the battle to eliminate these organizations. But if the West is reluctant to join this partnership, then Damascus will not fight the battle alone. It will instead use this "card" to "persuade" Western powers of what Damascus wants in a different kind of language. The other part of the Syrian strategy is more closely based on the agenda that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) has drawn up for Lebanon and Iraq - with priority given to the Lebanese arena that is primed for polarization and escalation. And because this arena has been infiltrated by a multitude of actors, the belligerents are fully ready to use Lebanon as a platform for launching messages - through car bombs, assassinations, and so on - not only to one another or to regional players, but also to international players led by the United States. Lebanon thus finds itself in the eye of the storm, beckoning the United States and European powers to cease being dismissive of this country as "insignificant" relative to their larger priorities, namely the accord with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

If the Syrian conflict spreads to Lebanon, these powers will have had directly contributed to this dangerous development, which will ultimately backfire on them, just like it will backfire against China and Russia. Indeed, the terrorist attacks that struck in Volgograd are but a testament to the failure of the Russian policy -- and before that, the American policy -- based on luring terrorists to Syria today and Iraq in the recent past to keep terrorism away from Russian and American cities. Applying the label of terrorism exclusively to one side while exempting others who practice a similar kind of terrorism is a wretched and harmful policy. A stand must be made against all methods of intimidation, whatever they are and wherever they may come from. Reducing the issue of Syria and Lebanon tomorrow and Iraq yesterday to being simply an element of the "war on terror" is nothing but a ruse that deceptive actors are adopting, each to serve its own purposes and agenda, in the era of nuclear, chemical, and political calendars- real as they may be, or imaginary.

Before the end of 2013, a man of intellect and dialogue was assassinated by a car bomb, an operation that has since been dubbed "the assassination of moderation." Dr. Mohammad Shattah, former minister, ambassador, political advisor, and World Bank official, was seeking to build on the newfound openness shown by Iran, and directed an open letter to the new Iranian President Hassan Rohani that The Wall Street Journal published after his assassination. On the morning of that day - Friday, December 27, 2013 -- four youths were at the scene by sheer coincidence, playing and taking pictures near the car bomb that a criminal had parked in the place of another that had been occupying the spot, driven by another criminal perhaps to use it in another crime. One of them 16-year-old Mohammad Shaar, was an innocent victim killed in the terrifying explosion deliberately planned to take place inside the security zone in Beirut near the hotels area and along the route leading to Beit al-Wasat, where a meeting for March 14 leaders was planned.

I can almost imagine the horror and panic that hit the four young men at the moment of the blast, because I, too, was struck by panic and horror from my hotel that was in extreme proximity to the blast. I experienced terrorism for the first time after I imagined it many times when friends were assassinated, mostly by similar car bombs. Mohammad Shattah was one of these friends, and Mohammad Shaar has become an unknown son for whom I cried. He is an example of the innocent passerby victims who the terrorists know perfectly well are in close proximity. No one has officially claimed responsibility for the attack which carries within it multiple messages to multiple recipients.

Terrorizing the Lebanese and foreign nationals in Beirut's hotels has definitely left a mark, but it will not deter people from going about their lives, refusing to surrender to terror as a way to assert dominance and the illusion of victory.Some Salafists in Tripoli have reportedly described Mohammad Shattah, who was open to dialogue and engagement with moderates, as an "atheist apostate," on account of his attitudes against the extremist tide. The Lebanese press reported that the Salafist Ahlul Sunna Movement issued a statement denying Salafist factions had anything to do with the slaying of Shattah, who hailed from Tripoli, but the statement stopped short of condemning the assassination. March 14 leaders blamed the assassination on Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria, saying that the attack bore the same hallmarks of those behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Recall that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is set to convene soon to try in absentia the Hezbollah members who stand accused of Hariri's murder.

Mohammad Shattah was respected by all ambassadors in Beirut, especially the ambassadors of Western countries. He had distinguished relations with Washington and the United Nations, especially since he was working on building on the openness that Iran began to show under President Hassan Rohani to keep Lebanon away from the Syrian conflict and all its belligerents. He hoped for a UN Security Council position in support of Lebanon's neutrality from the madness unfolding in Syria. His assassination is a message primarily addressed to Washington. The bet is that American preoccupation with appeasing Tehran and its insistence on its calendar for extreme patience until June -- to complete the dismantlement of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal -- will force the United States into submission without any meaningful response to any provocations from the other side, including the assassination of moderation, or the assassination of a friend, or the assassination of the idea of capitalizing on openness. It is a calculated yet flagrant exploitation of the patience policy to promote a policy of assertiveness.

For this reason, Washington has to carefully study what to do about this provocation, and subsequent steps, measures, and security incidents coming to Lebanon to take advantage of the American absence. Washington should assess the consequences to the failure of strict and serious rejection of those calculations. Germany must put the brakes a little on its sprint towards Tehran and Damascus, and its unrestrained alignment with the Russian position. Let Berlin show some humility and send out a message regarding Lebanon. To be sure, Germany is leading the march to cave in to the demands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it is time for it to employ some of its influence to rescue Lebanon from collapse between the jaws of the IRGC and its allies on the one hand, and the Takfiri jihadists on the other.

Europe is certainly divided. France has adopted a different stance than the one Germany has adopted, and the one Britain -- and the Obama administration -- implicitly endorses on Syria as well as balance of power in the relationship of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The French policy has a reputation for dithering, but what Britain is doing is a downright full retreat, not just a lack of resoluteness on Syria and Lebanon. The Saudi-French decision to support the Lebanese army is the right and necessary decision, though the timing is not ideal because it opens the door to interpretations that the $3 billion deal Saudi Arabia pledged to purchase French equipment for the Lebanese army could have political objectives.

What Britain and Germany should do is offer similar grants to the Lebanese army because it is the key to maintaining security and the survival of the state in Lebanon against the prospect of their collapse in the battles of realignment, dominance, or dictation by any side. President Obama must also temper a little bit his detachment from the Lebanese question and provide tangible support for the institutions of the Lebanese State, to let all concerned know that it is not allowed to confiscate the state and the democratic and constitutional process to deliberately create vacuum.

President Obama, who is betting on the openness represented by President Rohani in Tehran, is well aware that the internal battle in Iran is either serious or is a puppet play. In either case, the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's agenda is to take full advantage of Obama's engagement with Tehran. Morally and politically, and for the sake of long-term U.S. interests, the American president should not turn a blind eye to what is happening in Lebanon as an extension of his turning a blind eye to what has happened to Syria. Barack Obama surely knows that the Syrian government, his partner in the chemical framework agreement, is determined to take advantage of his reluctance to be drawn into the Syrian quagmire. The scope of its bet on Obama's reluctance fortified the Syrian government against any worry or fear from any accountability for its use of the explosive barrels it has been dropping on the terrorists - as it claims -- with little regard to innocent people upon whom the regime is unleashing its horrific methods of intimation.

The Syrian government is wagering on the timetable in the calendar to which it has become a necessary partner. It believes that the six-month deadline it has been given is tantamount to a free pass, especially as it now portrays itself as a partner in the fight against terrorism. A very close associate of the pillars of the regime in Damascus spoke recently with great confidence and extravagant satisfaction about the scramble by intelligence agencies to Damascus, pledging that President Bashar al-Assad's victory will bring a time of reckoning for some Arab countries. He spoke in a language of "concern" for Saudi Arabia, implying that he was certain al-Qaeda's terrorism would return to the kingdom. He said that Syria today believes in Iran first, and that its Arab identity has brought it the opposite of what it wants. He explained that encircling the Takfiris from al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front and similar groups is now part of Damascus's strategy of forging a tangible partnership with the West and the East to eliminate them. He said that in the event the West is reluctant to enter into an alliance with Damascus in a qualitative development in this bid, Damascus will content itself with the jihadist presence in an area of Syria near Turkey- for later use.

Is this a case of overconfidence? Or is it a case of exaggeration carrying in its folds a measure of anxiety regarding the Grand Bargain being hatched? Or are these truly the features of the upcoming strategy of the Syrian regime which really believes that it has achieved victory?T he most credible answer is that Syria remains in a state of flux, just like Iran and Lebanon with its government and the question of Hezbollah and the new jihadists in the country, all in flux. What is happening between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the West is also in flux.

Iran's victory in Syria and the defeat of the Gulf countries there is not something that is inevitable, and has yet to be decided. Those who overplay their hand, beyond their capabilities and realities, may be the ones who end up paying the price of their arrogance. The next phase is complex and will be charged with appalling bloodiness in the name of the war on terror - terror that the countries pledging to eliminate do not renounce themselves, as it is essentially made by their hands, each with its distinctive contributions. This phase will also be appalling because of the various modes of intimidation it will bring, and various levels of involvement or detachment.

Lebanon is a fragile link in the chain that the international community-especially the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany -- who must decide seriously not to allow to become a failed or rogue state. This is a battle that these countries must not lose in the course of their scramble towards Tehran to settle the nuclear issue, or to Damascus to settle the question of chemical weapons and terrorism, while their eyes are blinded to what is right under their nose. The relevant regional actors must cease their arrogance and reach an accord among each other. They need to notify local players and leaders in Syria that it is forbidden to brag about the ability to disrupt, destroy, and intimidate, and invalidate the state's constitutional institutions. If accord among them remains absent, and rational efforts fail, Lebanon will enter into a terrifying spiral.

It is extremely important for cool-headed countries, both Arab and Western, to adopt a coherent and generous policy to back the state's institutions and prevent Lebanon from falling into a vicious circle. In the end, one must feel sorrow for those who are paying the price for the mad fantasies of domination and the illusions of victory. Yet guilt should chase not only those who commit crimes but also those who remain silent over the assassination of moderation and innocence as was done onto Mohammad Shattah and Mohammad Shaar, and the victims who will follow.

(Translated from Arabic by Karim Trabouls)