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Lebanon: Assassination Brings Government To Brink Of Collapse

Syrians demonstrating in Damascus in October 2005 in opposition to the UN probe into the Hariri killing (AFP) WASHINGTON, November 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) --Heightened political tensions in Lebanon following the assassination of Pierre Gemayel have prompted renewed concerns about the stability of that country. RFE/RL correspondent Julie Corwin spoke with David Shenker, a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about the latest developments.

RFE/RL: What does this assassination tell us about the fragility of the political situation in Lebanon at the moment?

David Shenker: It tells us essentially that the pro-democracy, the anti-Syria movement is in quite a bit of trouble. The constitution of Lebanon is such that the cabinet has to resign and you have to get a new prime minister, etc. if you lose one-third of the cabinet. And with the resignation of six pro-Syria cabinet ministers, Hizballah and Amal, etc., last week and the assassination today of a pro-March 14 Independence minister, that makes seven. The magic number is really eight. And once they reach eight, the government will fall, according to law.

RFE/RL: You are expecting the number of resignations to rise to eight?

Shenker: Yes, I think the assassination today suggests that this is the tactic. I see this purely as a matter of Syrian interests. The whole thing is about the international tribunal to try and sentence the killers of Rafiq Hariri, the former president of Lebanon, who was killed in February 2005. The Syrians are starting to realize that this UN investigation is so thorough and so comprehensive and is spending so much money and is using such advanced techniques, including DNA testing. So they've apparently decided that at all costs they are going to stop this investigation and prevent the international tribunal.

RFE/RL: What should we watch out for in the immediate coming days as situation develops?

Shenker: I think typically what the Syrians do and what they are clearly doing now is, you know, playing tactical defense -- which means they go on the offense. What do I mean by that? You know, there was just this horrific murder in Lebanon, which is one in a series of a dozen and a half or two dozen since 2004. What the Syrians do is they go to Baghdad and they tell the Iraqis: "Hey, we want to be cooperative now. We want to help you. We are looking forward to some dialogue and negotiations with the United States and coming to agreement with the United States about this in Iraq." So they are trying to portray a very positive role and change of heart on Iraq now to deflect all the pressures that will come on them because of this assassination and because of the investigation of the international tribunal.

RFE/RL: Is there a danger of Lebanon sliding into a civil war?

Shenker: There is great danger of that when you see violence like this, when you see Hizballah threatening to go to the streets. Even if Hizballah doesn't want to turn its arms on the people of Lebanon, there is always a chance that this will exacerbate already extant Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Lebanon, that the Shi'a will enter a neighborhood where there are Christians and they're going to get into a fight, [and] that this thing can spin out of control with pockets of violence emerging to play a very big role. So I think the situation right now is extremely volatile.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri

Lebanese demonstrating in Beirut on the first anniversary of Hariri's slaying in February (epa)

POINTING AT SYRIA. The February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri shook the fragile political situation in Lebanon and threatened the entire region. The international community have been increasingly vocal in accusing Syria of involvement in the killing and in demanding that Damascus cooperate with a UN investigation....(more)


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