When a key cabinet official in
Lebanon was gunned down in a Beirut street Tuesday, many were quick to
blame the killing on Syria. Syria has sharply denied involvement. As VOA
correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Syria may be the prime suspect, but
there are other, less obvious suspects as well.
Syria may have had the motive to kill Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.
He was opposed to Syria, and backed efforts for a U.N.-sanctioned tribunal
on the killing last year of Rafiq Hariri, another anti-Syrian politician.
Syria denies involvement in either the Gemayel or Hariri killings.
Middle East analysts say the motive may be to destabilize the Lebanese
government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - who has blamed Syria - heads a
fragile coalition government made up of Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Maronite
Christians. Last week, six pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah ministers
resigned. David Schenker, senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington
Near East Institute, points out that the resignations, coupled with the
Gemayel assassination, put the government close to collapse.
"It's the primary motivation," Schenker says. "The constitution says
that if more than a third of the cabinet ministers resign or leave, and,
by implication, or if they're killed, then the government falls. And right
now with the Hezbollah resignations, you have six ministers gone. With the
killing of Gemayel you had seven. Eight is a third, and nine is more than
a third. So they're two away. I would expect that more people will be
killed, that there will be more attempts on the lives of cabinet
Some analysts say the timing of the killing leads them to question
whether Syria was behind Gemayel's death. Gemayel was killed just as Syria
restored relations with Iraq, a major diplomatic breakthrough for
Damascus. So, these analysts say, there is no shortage of other suspects.
Pierre Gemayel was a member of a prominent Maronite Christian
family. Wayne White, a former senior State Department Middle East analyst,
points out that he was killed in broad
daylight in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, which he
says could indicate a possible internal Maronite feud.
"Do we think that the Syrians are so flat-footed that they are knocking
these people off willy-nilly in the face of an angry world community? Or
could it be, for example, the much-fractured Maronite with a lot of its
own little scores to settle? The Gemayels [family] are not immensely
popular among certain quarters of the Christian community. They could be
bumping off their enemies within their own community knowing full well
that the world will rush and blame the Syrians. There could be little
plots within plots here," White says.
There is a political divide in the Maronite community. Some support
Michel Aoun in his alliance with Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and
Iran. Others side with Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former prime
minister. Fares Braizat, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, says the split could have escalated.
"So there is definitely a split within the Maronite community in
Lebanon. And whether there has been an internal struggle that has evolved
to be a violent one, we are not sure. But we cannot rule out any
possibility," Braizat says.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and co-director of the Center for Peace
Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says Gemayel's killing could have
been done by Hezbollah itself, acting as a proxy for Syria or Iran. But he
does not rule out that an outside group, perhaps from al-Qaida, could be
responsible, seeing the killing as a way to derail any possible U.S.
effort to seek Syrian and Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq.
"There are these al-Qaida groups of various kinds. And some of them are
anti-Hezbollah, and they have been making threats about this government as
well," Landis says. "They're the kind of people who in this super-heated
environment, this giant tug of
war and this delicate game, could easily try to profit
from this by freelancing."
Still, most analysts believe Syria is the prime suspect in the killing
of Pierre Gemayel, having, as detectives like to say, motive, means, and
opportunity. But, Fares Braizat points out, without any proof or claim of
responsibility, speculation remains the name of the game.