The U.S. Response

Assassination Increases Tensions With Syria, Iran

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

President Bush blasted Syria and Iran yesterday after the assassination of Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel for trying to destabilize Lebanon, reflecting tensions between Washington and its two Middle Eastern rivals that are increasingly playing out in Lebanon as well as Iraq.

While the president stopped short of blaming Syria for the killing, he warned that the United States remains "fully committed" to supporting Lebanon's democracy despite attempts by Damascus, Tehran and their allies in Lebanon "to foment instability and violence." During remarks to U.S. troops in Hawaii, he also charged that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in violation of two U.N. resolutions for its ongoing meddling in Lebanon.

For the past 21 months, the Bush administration has tried to steer the Mediterranean country toward democracy and away from the grips of long-standing Syrian and Iranian influence. As Iraq imploded, the Bush administration hoped that Lebanon might prove an alternative model for the flowering of freedom in the Middle East.

The massive Lebanese protests during the Cedar Revolution last year -- when more than 1 million Lebanese turned out to demand Syria's withdrawal after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri -- eventually brought down a government and forced Syria to end its 29-year occupation. Elections two months later put in place a parliament dominated by anti-Syrian forces.

But the assassination yesterday of Gemayel, who was a member of the third generation of Lebanon's most prominent Christian political family, signals that the battle for Lebanon is far from over, said U.S. officials and regional experts.

And having the United States as an ally is no protection. "The assassination highlights to what extent the United States is in a position of weakness in the region. . . . It doesn't matter what statements the U.S. makes about coups and assassinations, it still happens," Emile el-Hokayem, an expert on Lebanon at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank, said in an interview from Beirut.

Indeed, the bullets that raked Gemayel's car also fired on U.S. policy, analysts say.

"The bullets were meant for an outspoken critic of Syria. The Cedar Revolution is seen as an extension of American power, so the assassination of Gemayel was by extension a way of striking the U.S. as well," said Augustus Richard Norton, a former U.N. peacekeeper in Lebanon and now a professor at Boston University.

Added Lebanese columnist Rami Khouri, currently on a speaking tour in the United States: "This is the new Cold War."

U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton said Gemayel's assassination brought new attention to the danger that Syria and Iran are attempting, through Lebanese allies such as Hezbollah, to conduct a coup d'etat against the pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Over the past week, Hezbollah has threatened to hold large protests to demand more cabinet seats for a bloc that also includes the followers of Christian Michel Aoun.

In an interview with MSNBC, Bolton came the closest of any administration official to blaming Damascus. "One pattern we discern in these political assassinations of Lebanese leaders -- journalists, members of parliament -- they are all anti-Syrian. So I suppose one can draw conclusions from that," he said.

Bashar Jaafari, Syria's U.N. ambassador, denied that his government had a hand in Gemayel's killing. "Syria has nothing to do with this," he said, adding that Damascus condemned the assassination as a "horrible" crime.

In an emergency session yesterday, the U.N. Security Council condemned Gemayel's assassination, expressing "grave concern" that it could undermine Lebanon's effort to consolidate its fledgling democracy.

The council also formally approved plans to create an international tribunal to seek justice for the assassinations of Hariri and other prominent political targets. Most of the killings have been widely linked to Syria.

The tribunal has been a growing flash point between Syria and the international community, as well as among Lebanese. Many U.S. experts say that the recent political turmoil, including the resignation of six Shiite cabinet ministers in an attempt to bring down the government, appears to have been orchestrated by Damascus as way to force a deal with the outside world -- possibly including the survival of the Lebanese government in exchange for dropping the idea of a tribunal that might attempt to try senior Syrian officials.

Staff writers Michael Fletcher, in Hawaii with the president, and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company