2013 ended on a very bad note for Lebanon with the assassination of the juggernaut anti-Assad strategist Mohammad Chatah in the heart of Beirut. The bombing coupled with the political stalemate, a more defiant Hezbollah and “pockets of radicalization” in the Lebanese Sunni community, promise more violence and instability.
Chatah was neither a ranking political leader nor a threatening figure. His message as a key advisor for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was one of dialogue, a return to the foundations of the republic and curbing extremism.
Killing him was not meant to be a strategic move to eliminate a foe or introduce a game changer to the political dynamic, as was the case for example with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
A colleague described the act of targeting Chatah as going to the “mailbox”, with a message from the assailants that Beirut and the Hariri camp are not immune.
Condemnations and condolences came pouring from regional and Western capitals as security authorities in Lebanon sought help from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation that sent a team to Beirut on Sunday to assist in the probe.
While we may never know who killed Chatah, there is more than one thread preceding the bombing that points in the direction of the Assad regime in Damascus says Randa Slim, a Scholar at the Middle East Institute. Slim tells Al Arabiya News that “Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies have publicly accused Hariri and his team including the late Wissam al-Hassan and now the late Mohammad Chatah of fomenting the rebellion against the Assad regime and using Lebanon as a base to send weapons and fighters to Syrian armed groups.”
The Chatah assassination could be a sign for what is next for Lebanon. The country that has seen more than 13 assassinations in the last six years might be bracing for a new cycle.Joyce Karam
In fact, Chatah’s name was among those threatened by former Lebanese Brigadier General and a close Assad ally Mostafa Hamdan. Hamdan included Chatah on his list of those “who will pay a hefty price for intervening in the Syrian situation.” Sources close to Chatah tell Al Arabiya News that there were serious threats against him but “he refused to take them seriously.”
Slim contends that “assassinations have long been a tool in the Syrian regime's toolbox for dealing with their domestic and Lebanese opponents. This assassination is the latest manifestation of this Syrian policy.” As Assad feels more confident in fighting the fragmented opposition, he is gaining a freer hand regionally.
The Chatah assassination could be a sign for what is next for Lebanon. The country that has seen more than 13 assassinations in the last six years might be bracing for a new cycle. “It is especially so since there are many other Sunni and Christian Lebanese political figures who are on the Syrian regime hit list” says Slim.
In fact it is the political situation inside Lebanon that invites more violence. Lebanese leaders have failed so far to form a new government after the resignation of current caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati last March. Slim sees in the power vacuum as “creating the perfect environment for domestic and regional actors to settle old scores with impunity”.
On Hezbollah’s side, the leadership has been more defiant on contentious issues regarding its intervention in the Syrian conflict and weapons cache. Slim who researched Hezbollah at length says the party “has long claimed that the Syrian fight is an existential one” and “they are likely to stay in it for the foreseeable future.”
Internally and following the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Slim sees that Hezbollah (the largest Shiite party) “can no longer afford but to have a decision-making role in all Lebanese institutions.”
March 8, the political umbrella for the Hezbollah political coalition is making the government formation conditional on getting a blocking third, and it has also rejected calls for a cabinet of technocrats.
Hezbollah’s defiance regarding its role in Syria has only festered the sense of frustration in the Sunni street. This street is “feeling marginalized though it is not yet radicalized” says Slim. “There are pockets of radicalized Sunni groups in Tripoli, Sidon and the Beka'a region” but such impact “remains geographically confined so far.”
The Sunni street is also suffering from a leadership crisis. The killing of Hariri the father, and the security situation that forced his son out of the country, has created a void in moderate popular Sunni figures. This dynamic is being exploited by several extremist clerics in places like Tripoli and Sidon.
The Chatah assassination, the stalemate in government formation and the prolonged conflict in Syria puts Lebanon “at a turning point.” There is still a “very slim possibility that all the political leaders will find a minimum common ground to build on and form a new government."
But the absence of an acceptable regional or international mediator that can reconcile differences among Lebanese will bring more “intra- and inter-group violence” says Slim. A cycle that Chatah had worked hard to break in hopes of restoring consensus. His tragic end reminds of John Boykin’s words and the story of Lebanon: cursed is the peacemaker.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam