Intelligence Brief: Pierre Gemayel Assassinated in Lebanon
On November 21, Pierre Gemayel, a prominent Christian Maronite politician, was assassinated in the Christian Beirut suburb of Jdeideh. The assassination adds a new, powerful element of instability to an already fragmented political scene characterized by increasing tension between the different political, ethnic and confessional factions in Lebanon.
Several important members of the anti-Syrian coalition, such as Sunni leader Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, accuse Damascus of ordering the assassination. They accuse the Syrian leadership of seeking renewed influence in Lebanon, and they consider the killing an attempt to further weaken the pro-Western Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. Syria, however, denies any involvement in the murder.
The assassination of Gemayel occurred the same day that Syria took an important foreign policy step by restoring its diplomatic relations with Iraq after 25 years. This decision was a breakthrough for Damascus' diplomatic attitude because such a step displayed Syria's will to play a new role in Iraq, which, for Washington, is a critical concern.
In light of this interest, it cannot be certain whether official elements in Syria's government were responsible for the operation. The Syrians are aware that another false step in Lebanon will result in the West placing more pressure on Damascus. Therefore, at a time when both Washington and Damascus are searching for an agreement about the region's framework, ordering the killing of a Christian, anti-Syrian Lebanese minister would be a risky initiative.
There is also the possibility that an internal shift within the Christian Maronite faction was responsible for the job since it was a foregone conclusion that Syria would be blamed for the incident. Also, while Gemayel's family is one of the most important of the Christian Maronite faction, it is also one of the most controversial and is unpopular in some areas of the Christian community.
Moreover, those responsible for the killing could have an interest in stifling the recent rapprochement between the West and Syria. The recent steps between Washington and Damascus could lead Syria to a renewed influence in Lebanon. The new realist approach of Washington's foreign policy seems to be moving in the direction of talking with those countries considered enemies, such as Syria and Iran. Thus, the killing of a Christian Maronite, anti-Syrian minister could have the aim of pushing together the major external powers who share an important role in Middle Eastern affairs -- such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France -- so that they take action against Syria.
Nevertheless, while internal strife between different Christian Maronite clans could have been responsible for Gemayel's downfall, Syria's role cannot be ruled out. Especially after the recent resignations last week of six pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah ministers, the killing of Gemayel may have been a Syrian attempt to topple Lebanon's pro-Western government. Regardless of the force behind the assassination, the killing adds more uncertainty to Lebanon's already fragile political order.