Sunday, 17 February 2008

Decoding Lebanese Paranoia

Decoding Lebanese Paranoia

Published: February 17, 2008
BEIRUT, Lebanon

AFTER the notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyah was killed in a mysterious car bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Tuesday, a storm of accusation and counteraccusation quickly arose back here in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shiite movement, predictably blamed Israel. Some Western-allied political figures blamed Syria, their own favorite nemesis. Still others saw the killing as the first part of a sinister deal between Syria, Israel and the United States, in which Lebanon would be the loser.

It is a familiar ritual in the Middle East, and especially here in divided Lebanon. No one here can point to any real evidence in the death of Mr. Mugniyah, a famously ruthless and elusive figure. No one has taken responsibility for killing him.

But the accusations proliferate. And while they may look to outsiders like plausible explanations, they are often seen here as something different: a kind of road map to the accusers’ social and political identities, pointing to their fears, enemies, friends and, perhaps, their next moves.

“There is a tendency for each group to see these acts of violence as messages, usually aimed at them,” said Oussama Safa, the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. “It has become part of the cultural idiom here.”

And so, too, are the accusations. More than mere rhetoric, they quickly congeal into conflicting versions of history, often with bloody consequences.

For Hezbollah, blaming Israel for the death of one of its commanders was inevitable: fighting the Jewish state was Hezbollah’s founding mission and remains its full-time preoccupation. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, has himself been in hiding since 2006, fearing assassination by Israel. As Sheik Nasrallah angrily reminded the crowd at an emotional funeral for Mr. Mugniyah on Thursday, Israel has killed many Hezbollah leaders in the past, including Sheik Nasrallah’s own predecessor, Sheik Abbas Musawi, in 1992.

But Mr. Mugniyah’s killing took on special overtones, because he was not killed in Lebanon or Israel but in Syria. Sheik Nasrallah accused Israel of going “outside the battleground,” and swore to retaliate. “You crossed the borders,” he said. “Zionists, if you want an open war, let it be an open war anywhere.”

To Sheik Nasrallah’s listeners, that threat contained an implicit evocation of Hezbollah’s own history, and of Mr. Mugniyah’s special role in it. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hezbollah was an insurgent group, using suicide bombings, hijackings, and kidnappings to achieve its goals. Mr. Mugniyah was accused of planning attacks on an Israeli embassy and community center in Argentina in 1992 and 1994.

Since then, the group has narrowed its military role to border struggles with Israel, and has become one of Lebanon’s major political parties. By accusing Israel of violating the rules of their conflict, Sheik Nasrallah seemed to suggest that Hezbollah might return to its own more ruthless past.

He also conveniently ignored the fact that Mr. Mugniyah was killed in Damascus, where the Syrian regime — one of Hezbollah’s key patrons — is thought to exercise tight surveillance and control.

For other Lebanese political figures, that fact was the key to the killing. No sooner had word of Mr. Mugniyah’s death spread on Wednesday than members of the Western-backed March 14 alliance began to suggest that Syria might have been behind it.

This, too, was unsurprising: the March 14 group takes its name from the momentous protests in 2005 that forced Syria to leave Lebanon after decades of occupation. Its leaders have consistently accused Syria in the many bombings and assassinations here in the past three years.

But this time they had something different in mind. Syria was Mr. Mugniyah’s ally, and, in their theory, would not have killed him (or allowed him to be killed) without getting something in return.

“The Syrians gave the Israelis a very big gift with the killing of Mugniyah,” said Samir Franjieh, a member of the March 14 group, which controls the majority in Parliament.

They may have done so, he said, in an effort to avert the threat posed by an international tribunal investigating the recent assassinations in Lebanon, which they fear will implicate Syria’s leadership. Their theory, as framed by Mr. Franjieh, suggests that the Israelis — in gratitude for Syrian help or acquiescence in getting rid of Mr. Mugniyah — would use their influence with the United States and Europe to quash or limit the tribunal.

Walid Jumblatt, another March 14 leader, echoed that thought.

“The Syrians did it, in exchange for Lebanon, or in exchange for the tribunal,” he said. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Given the strong support of the United States and Europe for the tribunal, such a sellout seems far-fetched. But the identity of the Lebanese majority is rooted in fear of Syrian designs. Like Hezbollah with Israel, they are quick to invoke history to explain their sense of vulnerability. In 1991, the United States, grateful for Syria’s support in the first Gulf War coalition, gave its tacit approval as the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad crushed his enemies in Lebanon and began a decade and a half of Syrian domination there.

Last November, some Lebanese feared a repeat of that episode after the United States invited Syria to a conference in Annapolis, Md., seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace. They saw the invitation as the start of a deal to grant the Syrians control over Lebanon in exchange for help in resolving the Palestinian conflict.

In that case, the fears had real consequences. Leaders of the March 14 group made a sudden conciliatory gesture and agreed to accept a presidential candidate who had been favored by the Syrian-backed opposition.

But when Mr. Mugniyah was killed last week, fear was not their only response. Speaking to a vast crowd of supporters gathered in Martyrs’ Square on Thursday, Mr. Jumblatt reveled in the possibility that Syria and Hezbollah — his two major foes — were at each others’ throats.

“Look what happened yesterday,” he told the crowd. Syria and its allies in Hezbollah “are tearing each other apart,” he said. “They are eating each other.”

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