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Lebanon: Latest Crisis Renews Spotlight On Syria’s Role

A man in Baghdad reading newspaper accounts of the events in Lebanon today (epa) PRAGUE, November 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Today is Independence Day in Lebanon, normally a time for celebration.

But all festivities have been cancelled as Lebanon grapples with the fifth killing of an anti-Syrian politician in nearly two years.

Syria denies any role in these murders, and Damascus has strongly condemned Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel’s killing on November 21.

Looking At A Pattern

Yet the events are again highlighting the role Syria still appears to play in Lebanon, 18 months after its forces withdrew from the country.

With Gemayel's death, the resignations or deaths of two more ministers would bring down Lebanon's government.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton refused to directly accuse Syria of the latest assassination, but he made it clear on November 21 that Damascus is a key suspect for Washington.

“I think we need to find out all of the facts, but you can take a look at the pattern of who gets assassinated in Lebanon," Bolton said.

Bolton was speaking as the UN Security Council approved the Lebanese cabinet’s proposals for a special international tribunal to try suspects for the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Security Council action means the plan can now go back to Lebanon for final government approval.

An International Tribunal?

But the tribunal has been a divisive issue. Six pro-Syrian opposition members -- most of them members of the Shi’ite Hizballah party -- resigned last week just before the cabinet voted to approve the tribunal plans. The resignations plunged the government into deep crisis.

“The Lebanese government is currently in a very precarious position," said Mona Yacoubian, an analyst with the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. "And I think we need to understand what’s happening along the lines of some international events as well -- namely, the UN-proposed international tribunal, which last week the Lebanese government approved, to try those who may have been involved in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.”

The 34-year-old Gemayel was among those cabinet members who voted for the tribunal proposal.

Even before Gemayel was shot dead in a Christian district near Beirut, the pro-Syrian Hizballah and its Christian ally Michel Aoun, a former prime minister, were preparing street protests to topple anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government.

Hizballah Calls For Protests

The pro-Syrian Hizballah accuses the government of being allied with Washington and says it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims are no longer in the cabinet.

Siniora warned this week that any antigovernment protests could turn violent.

Analyst Yacoubian says there is a danger that Lebanon could again break down along sectarian lines. She says the specter of civil war -- such as the one that destroyed the country in the 1980s -- looms again on the horizon.


A poster in Damascus in July stresses close ties between Syria and Lebanon (epa)

There was great hope with the Cedar Revolution [of March 14, 2005] that perhaps the Lebanese would leave some of their sectarian identities behind and identify more as Lebanese," Yacoubian said. "This latest attack, and some of the tensions that we're seeing between Hizballah and its allies -- and the Sunni Druze coalition allied against it -- does raise some concern that civil war [or] deeper sectarian violence may be on the far horizon for Lebanon.”

Anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said on November 22 that he expected more assassinations of ministers and members of parliament, actions aimed at undermining the ruling majority.

Maronite Christian Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir echoed these fears and urged restraint.

With Gemayel's death, the resignations or deaths of two more ministers would bring down Siniora's government.

Gemayel's body today was driven from a hospital near Beirut to his hometown of Bekfaya, northeast of the capital. Hundreds of sympathizers walked behind the coffin, waving white-and-green flags of his Christian Phalange Party.

Gemayel's funeral will take place on November 23. The anti-Syrian coalition has urged a large turnout.

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)


Lebanon's Cedar Revolution Hangs In The Balance

500,000 Rally In Beirut To Mark Anniversary Of Premier's Slaying

People Want 'Truth,' But Not All Welcome Mehlis Report

Security Council Demand Syria Cooperate With Hariri Probe

Syrian Interior Minister's Death Linked To Lebanon


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