Andrew Exum is one of the sharpest Middle East analysts around, especially when it comes to the byzantine, often brutal politics of the Levant. A former U.S. Army Ranger and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Exum lived in Beirut from 2004 until 2006 and is is currently writing his doctoral dissertation in the War Studies Department of King's College London on the military evolution of Hezbollah. I asked Exum for his take on the latest bombing in Lebanon. It's all about context, he says:
Politics in Lebanon have always been conducted with a high cost attached. Yesterday's assassination of parliamentarian Antoine Ghanim was just the latest act of horrific violence to have accompanied the Lebanese political process during that country's troubled history.
This time, the political debate in Lebanon surrounds the election of that country's next president. The decision arrives at a time in which Lebanon’s political actors are already polarized into two warring camps. Hezbollah and its allies in the Christian community (led by Michel Aoun) are on one side, demanding more representation for their constituents within the government. On the other side is the so-called March 14th coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Christians from other parties, demanding a president who will support—among other things—the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
Killing Antoine Ghanim makes little sense if taken as a singular event. Instead, the assassination must be seen within the context of a systematic attempt to intimidate and/or kill off the political enemies of Syria that started in the fall of 2004 with the failed attempt on the life of Druze leader Marwan Hamade.
The next assassination—which killed Hariri and over a dozen others, including parliamentarian Basil Fleihan—started the process that led to the withdrawal of Syria's military from Lebanon. But throughout the summer of 2005 and since, the assassinations have continued even with the Syrian military presence long gone. Most of the victims have been Christian politicians, and some—such as Ghanim and Gibran Tueni, publisher of a prominent anti-Syrian daily—were killed with ruthless efficiency just days after returning to Lebanon from exile.
It is doubtful that either Hezbollah or Michel Aoun's constituents were so reckless as to have had a role in any of the killings. Besides, both groups are seeking political goals within Lebanon independent of Syria's aims.
But in the past year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah—who condemned the latest assassination on Al-Jazeera yesterday—has often drawn a contrast between his constituents and those of the March 14th coalition: His constituents, he notes, don't have second passports like so many of the wealthier Lebanese who support March 14th. For his constituents, more is at stake because Lebanon is their only future.
That may be so, but Nasrallah's political adversaries also don't enjoy the immense security apparatus that he does. How can he taunt his political enemies, he must ask himself, when his friends in Damascus are killing them one-by-one?