Lebanon assassination attempts revive suspicions about Syria


Samir Geagea was bending down to pick a flower, he said, when he heard the sound of gunshots. From a hilltop a kilometer away, a sniper drew a bead on the political leader, a former warlord, sending a bullet past his head and another by his torso.

“It missed me by chance, or by providence ,” said Mr. Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, one of the country’s main Christian parties, of the apparent attempt on his life April 4. “It depends on if you are a believer or not.”

As the summer season begins in Beirut, with tourists and Lebanese expatriates flocking back to the country’s beaches, nightclubs and the outdoor cafes, there is a veneer of calm in many areas, a prevailing thought for some that tiny Lebanon is sheltered from the carnage next door in Syria.

But the quiet may be an illusion. Lebanon, which is only decades past a brutal civil war, remains sharply divided over Syria as increasingly heated rhetoric about the regime in Damascus dominates political discourse. The assassination attempt against Mr. Geagea, a critic of Hezbollah and Syria, and another soon after on Mustafa Jeha, a lesser-known figure with similar views, served as a reminder of ever-lurking instability.

Now, there is a fear that the country could return to a period of political assassinations similar to the one it went through in the years following the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, when many politicians, journalists and activists associated with the anti-Syria March 14 political bloc were the targets.

“The return to political violence is very, very highly possible,” said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.

In the past, official investigations into assassination attempts have rarely uncovered the identities of the assassins. The low risk to the killers has at times helped make assassinations a favored political tool.

Mr. Geagea, while revered by his followers, has made many enemies over the decades. Considered one of the most feared warlords during the country’s civil war, he has been accused of ordering a number of killings in the past, including those of fellow Christian rivals. As a member of the country’s March 14 opposition, he has continually antagonized Damascus and its allies in Lebanon.

Thus far, Mr. Geagea has spoken only in vague terms about who he believes was behind the attempt on his life, offering hints while not naming names. He suspects “a professional group with big means, with big facilities within the Lebanese state and who would have an interest in changing the balance of power in Lebanon.”

Despite his ambiguity on the subject, to many, such words point to Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite Islamist organization that leads the country’s March 8 bloc and has stayed by Damascus’ side throughout the turmoil next door.

Less than two weeks after the attempt on Mr. Geagea’s life, a gunman wielding a pistol opened fire on Mr. Jeha’s car as he drove on a highway south of Beirut. Two bullets slammed into the hood of his vehicle and a neat cluster of three shots pierced the windshield just to the right of where he was sitting.

Mr. Jeha showed little restraint in naming who he thought was behind the attempt. “I think Hezbollah and the Syrian regime are working together now,” he said. “They are ready to do anything to support the Syrian regime and the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

“They opened the door for assassinations again in Lebanon,” he added.

Mr. Jeha, a 28-year-old Shiite Muslim, recently founded a new political organization called the Lebanese Sovereignty Movement and has been very critical of Hezbollah and Syria. Additionally, he began republishing books written by his late father — assassinated in 1992 — that attacked Hezbollah’s ally, Iran. Mr. Jeha alleged that his background and current activities made him a target.

The involvement of Hezbollah and Syria in the assassination attempts is plausible to some.

“It has been expected for a while that a greater instability and growing unrest in Syria would be reflected in one way or another in Lebanon,” said Mr. Salamey, the political science professor. The attempt on Mr. Geagea “may very well be sending a message to political leaders that those criticizing the Syrian regime or part of a coalition that is pressing for regime change in Syria may be assassinated or killed.”

Mr. Jeha charged that discord in Lebanon — such as that which could arise through assassinations — would aid the regime in Syria by diverting attention from the conflict there.

As divisions in Lebanon have grown deeper, March 14 politicians have become increasingly strident in the war of words with their pro-Syria rivals, the March 8 bloc, at times calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his cabinet and decrying what they say is continued support for the Syrian regime despite an official stance of neutrality on the conflict.

There are those who remain skeptical about whether Syria is stirring things up in Lebanon— even about whether the attempt on Mr. Geagea actually happened.

“We have the question of what would the Syrians really gain from destabilizing Lebanon?” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “Disturbing Lebanon will not abate the uprisings in Syria.”

Mr. Khashan said that Hezbollah would not be interested in assassinations and that the organization was instead “lying low and doing their best to keep the situation in Lebanon quiet.”

Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s energy minister, has questioned the truthfulness of Mr. Geagea’s account and suggested that false claims could be made to justify future assassinations against members of the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition.

But Mr. Geagea warned that the message is: Those who think like him “may be in danger.”

NY Times