Again. It’s happened again. Yesterday, while I was in meetings here in NYC, I received a phone call from my fiancée in Beirut. Another pro-government member of parliament, Antoine Ghanem, had been killed in a savage assassination. This one has the Syrians’ fingerprints all over it and it was designed to make an impression.
Ghanem, a member of the Phalange party which lost Pierre Gemayel back in November, was killed by a massive car bomb in the largely Christian neighborhood of Sin el-Fil. Ghanem had fled Lebanon out of fear for his life after the slaying of Lebanese MP Walid Eido, killed in a similar car bomb slaying in June. Ghanem had returned to Lebanon just two days before his death.
The explosion killed four other people and wounded scores. Up to 15 cars were destroyed. A car booby-trapped with explosives was apparently detonated when Ghanem was driving by, indicating a deep knowledge of his schedule and route. His was the sixth killing of a pro-government figure since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which plunged Lebanon — and the region — into a political crisis.
What’s going to be the fallout of this killing? And what might it mean for the region? Precious little good news.
Ghanem was a Maronite Christian, and a potential candidate for the presidency, the election for which is scheduled for Sept. 25. Under Lebanon’s Byzantine election laws, the parliament must convene with a two-thirds quorum and agree on a president. But without a quorum, the pro-government March 14 coalition — currently the parliamentary majority — argues that a simple majority vote should be held for the president. With the death of Ghanem, their majority has been cut to just four seats.
A simple majority vote is sending the pro-Syrian opposition groups, led by the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, into paroxysms of fury. Syria really, really needs to have a pro-Syrian president in Beirut. That’s Damascus’ best chance to keep stalling the International Tribunal looking into Hariri’s death. While the United Nations Security Council has already blessed the tribunal’s work — without Lebanon’s explicit OK — the current president, Emile Lahoud has been pretty effective in slowing down the investigation. So, more than two years after Hariri’s death — and a number of other killings — the tribunal barely even begun to be set up.
Why is the Syrian government so hot to keep the tribunal on ice? Because previous investigators have tied Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law and other high-level figures within his regime to the slaying. An internationally recognized ruling claiming that the Syrian president signed off on a murder of a statesman in another nation would lead to international sanctions, asset freezings of regime figures and a travel ban. In short, all the things that make life worth living for a Middle East dictator would go away. But more importantly, it would cripple Syria’s economy, which is starting to boom a bit. Hurt the economy and you hurt the regime, perhaps even topple it.
This is why the United States, Lebanon’s pro-Western bloc and many other countries are pushing hard for a) a pro-Western president in Lebanon b) the tribunal and c) punishment of the guilty parties. That’s why Syrian-backed groups in Lebanon such as Hezbollah (which relies on Syria as a logistical route for its traffic in Iranian weapons) are pushing so hard to keep the heat off Assad.
And that’s why Ghanem had to die. With a slim majority made even slimmer by his demise, members of the majority bloc know they’re under threat of death if they go out too much. Many are still out of the country and may not be persuaded to come back in time for the opening of Parliament next week. If the March 14 bloc elects a president from its own ranks using a simple majority vote outside of parliament, Lebanon could be facing the creation of two governments and little hope of compromise. In a country as divided as Lebanon, that could move the nation a step — a big step — closer to civil war.
And let’s be very clear: Any civil war in Lebanon would surely not stay in Lebanon. Too many issues in the Middle East are connected now, from Iraq, to Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Pressure on one leads to reaction in another place, like poking a balloon to watch it bulge on the other side. Civil war in Lebanon could trigger another Israeli intervention, bringing the Jewish state eyeball to eyeball with Syria — again.
We’re on a knife’s edge.