- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Michael Young, opinion editor for Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper and a well-known observer of Lebanese affairs, says he has little doubt the recent assassination of Christian leader Pierre Gemayel and other high-profile killings in the country were carried out by Syria and its Lebanese allies.
Young, who also is a contributing editor to Reason magazine, expressed great concern over talk of the United States opening a dialogue with Syria over Iraq. He says “if the United States goes to Syria with hat in hand as invariably it will, asking for its help in Iraq, then the Syrians will see a golden opportunity to re-impose their hegemony in Lebanon.” He adds: “I think Lebanon’s very fragile independence would be lost.”
In the aftermath of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, most observers have pointed the finger at Syria, although others have held out all kinds of different explanations. Do you believe Syria is responsible for this assassination?
There is little doubt in my mind that this is part of a pattern of assassinations and bombings that have occurred in Lebanon in the last two years, including that of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri. I personally believe the Syrians and their allies in Lebanon were responsible for probably all of these, so I don’t believe Syria was not involved as some people have argued.
More than that, I think it is important to understand that UN investigator Serge Brammertz, who was looking into the Hariri assassination, has agreed to help Lebanese authorities in their investigation of the latest crime. He has made clear in previous reports that he believes the assassinations and bombings that have taken place in Lebanon after the Hariri assassination were somehow related, and the fact that he has included them in his investigation of the Hariri murder suggests that he sees a common thread running through all the crimes. Now, given that he’s investigating a crime in which Syria is the most likely culprit, I think that’s a very clear indication that Syria is probably in some fashion linked to these other assassinations and bombings that have taken place in Syria and by Syria’s allies in Lebanon.
Of course, the assassination came at a time when the Lebanese cabinet, minus its Hezbollah representatives, had just approved the UN-sponsored tribunal on the assassination of Hariri. Is there any question this is linked?
In recent weeks there have been a number of developments. The Syrians have indicated to their allies in Lebanon—and this comes from one of their leading allies who has spoken to the Druze leader Walid Jumblad—they wanted to prevent the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal that will try suspects in the Hariri assassination from starting. The Syrians are very worried that this tribunal will point the finger at them, that this tribunal will be used to call in Syrian suspects in the crime, and that it will lead to international sanctions.
What they have been trying to do through their local allies is scuttle the Lebanese government’s endorsement of the tribunal. That has involved Syria’s allies trying to bring down the government by trying to force the government to resign. Now, the government, which is made up of a majority of anti-Syrians, has resisted this and has rejected calls for its resignation. And this led to six ministers resigning a couple of weeks ago; these six ministers belonged to pro-Syrian parties or were named by pro-Syrian politicians, including two from Hezbollah. The point there was to destabilize the government, and I believe the assassination of Pierre Gemayel was a further effort to destabilize the government, because if the government loses a third of its ministers either through resignation or something else, including death, then constitutionally it collapses. So I see the assassination of Gemayel as partly an effort to bring down the government.
At the same time all this is going on, in the United States there is a great deal of agitation about Iraq. There are many voices urging the Bush administration to end its efforts to ostracize Syria and to ask Syria for help in ending the chaos in Iraq. But the Syrians will ask for something in return obviously, and will that be Lebanon?
Certainly I think at the top of their list will be Syria’s return to Lebanon [Following Hariri’s assassination, Syria under pressure withdrew the approximately 20,000 troops it had in Lebanon]. The fact of the matter is that if the United States goes to Syria with hat in hand as invariably it will, asking for its help in Iraq, then the Syrians will see a golden opportunity to reimpose their hegemony in Lebanon. I think the Iranians would also see a similar opportunity to increase even more their influence in Lebanon, and the United States would not be in a position to prevent this from happening, all the more so if the Syrians and Iranians are giving them something in Iraq.
Now, let’s take this a step further. I don’t actually believe either Syria or Iran is going to give the United States very much in Iraq. They may very well be happy to talk to the United States about Iraq, but they’re not going to give them very much because ultimately their objective is simply to get the United States out of Iraq. It’s very difficult to negotiate with anybody, as the United States may well do, when you’re on the way out of a country. As everyone sees you leaving, you’re not going to have much leverage in the negotiation. So, when we talk about talking to Syria, someone has to explain to me how Syria, which has been a source of major instability in Iraq, can today suddenly become the source of stability in Iraq, all the more so as the Syrian regime has defended itself systematically in the region by provoking instability in neighboring countries. Secondly, the fact of the matter is the United States has had very few successes in the Middle East in the last three years. One of the rare democratic successes has occurred in Lebanon, where in 2005 the Lebanese in a very peaceful manner managed, with the international community, to push the Syrians out of the country. Is the United States willing to surrender this for very uncertain gains in Iraq? I think it would be a big mistake.
You think if the United States dealt with Syria on Iraq, it would cost Lebanon.
Yes, it would certainly cost Lebanon and I think Lebanon’s very fragile independence would be lost. And let me throw out something else: The rationale behind engaging Syria is if you engage Syria you will break Syria off from Iran. This is an absurd rationale, and certainly if I were a Syrian I would laugh at this. Because it’s precisely Syria’s moving closer to Iran in recent months and last year that has made so many foreign powers say, “All right, well let’s now engage Syria.” Syria’s become much more relevant since it strengthened its relationship with Iran.
There’s been a lot of discussion, largely in the Western press, about Beirut on the verge of collapse. Should we worry very much about Hezbollah’s plans for street demonstrations? Are they trying to bring down the government by force, or what?
Everybody in Lebanon today has reached some kind of a stalemate, a deadlock, even Hezbollah. Certainly the question on the mind of many Lebanese, this week particularly, is will Hezbollah take to the streets to try to bring down the government? And the big fear is a Shiite political organization that is taking to the streets, and this may, many people worry, provoke a Sunni counterreaction. And what you would have is Sunni-Shiite conflict in the streets of Beirut. This is certainly plausible. The Sunni community is very angry with Hezbollah, with the fact Hezbollah has refused to disarm, with the fact Hezbollah has openly flaunted its relationship with Syria, even though Syria is considered the major culprit in the Hariri assassination, Hariri, of course, being a Sunni leader. So certainly the tension is there.
I would add to that, the Syrians are in a position to provoke sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon in a further effort to get a foot back into the country. Because as you know when there is domestic unrest in Lebanon, everyone seems to say, “Well let’s go talk to the Syrians, only they can impose stability.” So that’s the worry. But more broadly, it is important to point out that Hezbollah may find itself at a dead end with its threat to take to the streets. If they do take to the streets, this is very risky. Lebanon is not a country which yields to intimidation. It’s a country in which, for better or worse, there is a balance between the religious communities. If someone breaks the rules, it can very easily turn against that community or that political group. So Hezbollah’s threat to take to the streets may very well backfire against it.
The other communities—the majority in parliament, the majority in Lebanese society, the Sunni community, most Christians as well as the Jewish community—would act very negatively if Hezbollah sought to bring down the government through street demonstrations. It would be perceived as a coup d’etat. And so everyone would mobilize against Hezbollah. Hezbollah should be very careful in the coming days as it takes its decision. I believe it understands the risks, and ultimately I hope this will lead all sides to try to find some political compromise out of the deadlock. But as I was saying earlier, there is a major problem: Not all Lebanese problems are Lebanese. There are many regional issues being played out here. Syria is very much afraid it will lose out in the Hariri tribunal, and so its allies in Lebanon must take that into consideration.