Murder in Beirut

In a politically contested city such as Beirut, there are public figures who fall to assassins, and others deemed safe by their reasonableness and moderation. The assassination Dec. 27 of former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah by a car bomb in a swanky part of the city called into question the rules of the sordid political game that has come to dominate Lebanon’s life.

Chatah wasn’t a warlord, or a man of the militias. He was an economist, a technocrat with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He had served as his country’s ambassador to Washington, and knew the world of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In his early 60s, he was a Sunni Muslim whose political career was tethered to that of his mentor, the legendary tycoon Rafik Hariri, who dared question Syria’s domination of his country and was killed by a car bomb nine years ago.

Chatah’s assailants must have intended the connection: The economist was killed a few hundred meters from where Hariri’s convoy had been attacked. Unlike his mentor, Chatah had no huge security detail and moved about with relative freedom. He had one young bodyguard who perished with him. Both the car bomb and the location of the crime bespoke of brazen killers who meant to convey a sense of mastery and indifference.

An international tribunal looking into the Hariri assassination has picked up steam of late, and the suspects in Damascus, and among the Hezbollah movement, have made no secret of their animus toward it. This deed against Chatah is of course part of this larger struggle. Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad, in exile in Saudi Arabia and Paris, minced no words: Chatah’s killers were the same men who killed his father, he said.

This political assassination -- by one count, the 17th over the last decade -- fits a pattern. The targets are, in the main, Sunni or Christian politicians, daring writers and journalists who incurred the wrath of the master of the Damascus regime, or the leaders of Hezbollah.

There was a time when Beirut was fought over, the spoils of the political game divided among the warlords and the feuding religious sects. This now is of the past. Armed and financed by Iran, working hand in hand with the Syrian regime, Hezbollah has come to dominate the fragile country. The militia’s might dwarfs that of the Lebanese state and the national army, let alone the other political contenders for power. Hezbollah, for all practical purposes, is the state -- without the responsibility and the restraints of statehood.

The war next door in Syria has altered the political life of Hezbollah. Bashar al-Assad was an ally, but his war against a relentless Sunni rebellion was stalled. Hezbollah, doubtless prodded by its Iranian masters, had to step into the breach. It did so covertly at first, but the Syrian war kept no secrets. Assad’s forces had to be rescued in the face of certain defeat in towns on the Syria-Lebanon border.

At first, Hezbollah was opaque about its fighters who fell in Syria; they died while performing “jihadi duty,” it was said. But this duplicity could not last. The myth of Hezbollah as a “resistance” movement at war with Israel and the U.S. was shredded. Hezbollah had entered the sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite Islam blowing through the Fertile Crescent. Its might and bravado would come to offend and radicalize Lebanese Sunnis who had felt the bonds of solidarity with the rebellion in Syria, but had refrained from stepping into the quagmire there. It had grown much harder to accept Hezbollah as part of the fabric of Lebanese politics.

Beirut, as has been its way for decades, illuminates the wider currents swirling around the region. There is a negligible American role in a city that had once been in the American orbit. Iran looms large, behind a veneer of neutrality and distance.

The Assad regime, on the ropes a year or so ago, is emboldened again. It has put the word out in Lebanon that it will emerge victorious form its struggle at home, and that Western powers have signaled their acceptance of its writ, since it struck a deal over the disposal of its chemical weapons.

The Lebanese state struggles to be heard in its own country; it owes the sustenance it has to France and Saudi Arabia. As for Hezbollah, this is a time of uncertainty. It has power, but its leaders must worry and wonder what will become of them if Iran truly comes to an accommodation with the U.S.

A good and decent man, Mohamad Chatah was in the way of sinister designs.

Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the author of The Syrian Rebellion, published by Hoover Press.

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