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Brinksmanship in Lebanon

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: November 27, 2006

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“Some civil wars never really end” observes Niall Ferguson in the Los Angeles Times, touching on fears that Lebanon is poised for a new cycle of violence. Beirut’s fragile political situation suffered a grave blow last week with the assassination (McClatchy) of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on the outskirts of Beirut. Gemayel, a prominent Christian and outspoken critic of Syria, was gunned down at a time when the Shiite Hezbollah movement is trying to gain greater political influence. As a result, Lebanon’s government is left teetering at the brink of collapse (NYT), and possibly renewed violence.

Earlier this month, six ministers quit their posts in support of Hezbollah’s bid for greater cabinet-level representation. Under Lebanese law, if eight ministers leave the cabinet loses its right to govern. Gemayel’s murder leaves the nation’s government dangling by a thread. That thread came perilously close to giving way last Tuesday: Hours before Gemayel’s death the office of Lebanon’s minister for parliamentary affairs, Michael Pharaon, was sprayed with bullets (National Review Online).

Most Lebanese suspect Syrian involvement (Asia Times). Daily Star editor Michael Young tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that “Syrians and their allies in Lebanon were responsible,” for a string of assassinations in Lebanon over the last two years. Syria is already under investigation by the United Nations for the assassination of former-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year. Hours after Gemayel was gunned down, the UN Security Council voted to establish a special tribunal to try those responsible for Hariri’s death. Days later, Lebanon’s remaining cabinet ministers voted to approve the tribunal (al-Jazeera). Hezbollah leaders have announced peaceful street demonstrations to protest the government, but TIME reports the group appears to be rapidly rearming.

In a new podcast, CFR Mideast expert Steven A. Cook says the hit on Gemayel marks a reemergence of Syrian influence in Lebanon and could provide Hezbollah with a chance to wield greater power. Daily Star editor Rami Khouri tells NPR’s All Things Considered that Gemayel’s killing takes place in the context of a larger struggle between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on one side and the Lebanese government, the United States, and UN investigators on the other.

Though world leaders swiftly condemned the attack, a diplomatic solution to the turmoil in Lebanon, and the broader region as a whole, requires more than tough talk. The Financial Times says that despite this latest setback, Gemayel’s death should not derail the growing momentum in Washington and London for direct dialogue with Syria and Iran. Yet the Washington Times suggests such diplomacy is a lost cause.

Writing in the National Interest, CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Daniel L. Byman suggest there are no good options for the United States in Lebanon and the Middle East is increasingly becoming a “no-win zone." CFR President Richard N. Haass warns in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs of a new Middle East in which the United States plays a less influential role and Iran’s profile rises.

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