The tactic of political assassinations in Lebanon
BEIRUT - With two presidents, three prime ministers, one mufti and dozens of top politicians, ministers, parliamentarians, security officials and journalists — the bulk of whom were killed over the past decade — Lebanon has the lion’s share when it comes to political assassinations.
Whether such political murders were meant to eliminate opponents, change the course of events and the political dynamics in the country, boost the influence or control of this or that regional power or provoke terror among the population, the result has emptied Lebanon of those who had dared resisting the de facto forces.
Lebanon has long been the main scene of targeted assassinations, due to the nature of the political struggles inside the country, its proximity to the once Middle East’s main conflict spot — the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories — and other Arab and regional considerations.
The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a huge truck-bomb explosion that targeted his convoy in Beirut on February 14, 2005, was the tip of the iceberg. His killing provoked a strong unexpected reaction from his mainly Sunni followers who took to the streets in large numbers during his funeral shouting “Syria out”.
That angry outburst soon led to widespread popular protests (later known as the Cedar revolution), which — along with international pressure boosted by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 — forced Syrian President Bashar Assad to pull his troops out of Lebanon on April 30th of the same year, ending almost 30 years of military presence.
But the targeted killings did not stop.
In addition to Hariri and his close aide and minister of economy Bassel Fleihan, who died from injuries sustained in the explosion, ten other anti-Syria figures and security officials were assassinated from June 2005 to December 2014. Four escaped attempts on their lives, including Marwan Hamadeh, a prominent politician and journalist who suffered severe injuries in an explosion on October 1, 2004.
The attempt on Hamadeh was the first signal that the relative peace, security and stability Lebanon had enjoyed since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990 was over. A bloody and uneven confrontation had started.
“They (Syrian regime) wanted to eliminate me and stop my movements… I was very active in resisting the re-election of (president Emile) Lahoud and trying to reassemble the opposition,” Hamadeh told the Arab Weekly in a lengthy interview.
The attempt was clearly “a message meant to stop a course” that was developing against Syria’s “heavy-handed” control over the country and its attempts to reimpose Lahoud.
And that was something Assad wouldn’t tolerate.
Even the thought of electing a new president “who would not be hostile to Syria but will not be a Syrian puppet like Lahoud,” was not allowed, according to Hamadeh. “I think they did not accept that… It was too much for them to witness the toppling of (Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein and the failure of their policies in Lebanon, with a continuous rebellion of the Christians and Hariri against them.”
At the end, Hariri bowed to Syria’s pressures and went ahead with renewing Lahoud’s mandate but that was not enough to spare his and the others’ lives.
Syria and Hezbollah have categorically denied any involvement in Hariri’s assassination, arguing that Israel and other forces had interests in killing Hariri to create discord in Lebanon. However, five Hezbollah members were accused of being behind Hariri’s assassination and are being tried in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the first such court established for the Arab world.
While Hezbollah sees the trial as a US-Israeli plot to discredit the Iran-backed group, Hamadeh said he has no doubt about who carried out “systematic assassinations against the most influential people in the opposition”.
“All the assassinations, killings (during the civil war and afterward) were aimed at enhancing, keeping total Syrian control over the country,” he said. Short of total war and beyond normal politics, assassinations were used “as a tool of political terror against personalities whose disappearance would influence the course of events sometimes more than a war or civil war”, said Hamadeh. “They could stop the course or start another war.”
And indeed another war has started, this time between Sunnis and Shias.
Hariri might have been the first victim of the emerging Arab/Persian dispute as he grew in importance politically, with strong international relations. But most importantly — as Fadi Kiwan noted — Hariri might have been eliminated after being accused of “trying to develop an opposition in Syria and Lebanon against the rise of the Shia superpower in the region”.
Kiwan, the director of the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University, said Lebanon’s assassinations were meant to create terror for political purposes and change the dynamics in the country.
“There was a clear determination to provoke terror, terrorise people and create divisions along sectarian lines: between first Muslims and Christians, then Sunnis and Syria and lately between Shias and Sunnis.”
Hariri’s killing, Kiwan said, was not only meant to “eliminate the man but to create terror among the Sunnis” and then divisions and discord between them and the Shias.
According to Kiwan, Hariri’s assassination was the first step in “terrorising the Sunnis and was followed by killing anyone who could oppose. All symbols of resistance to this hegemony were to be eliminated.” However, she does not rule out the role of “one or many intelligence services” in such killings to create discord between Sunnis and Shias.
Did such a terror tactic succeed in weakening various parties?
“It only increases hatred and anger… It will never weaken neither the Sunnis nor the Shias. Both are alternatively victims of terror,” Kiwan said. “Now, it is terror against terror.”
To Hamadeh, the assassinations fell short of intimidating them. “By miracle” as he said, they succeeded in having an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s killing. “The tribunal is working slowly but it is there. They cannot abolish it… This is the one thing we got.”
Would the tribunal be able to reveal who gave the killing orders in Lebanon? Would it be able to stop such assassinations in the future? Many hardly believe that.