The assassination of an ex-militiaman in Lebanon is President Aoun’s failure
Last week’s story of two ex-militiamen in Lebanon – one released, the other shot dead – shines a spotlight on President Michel Aoun’s incompetence – and his ally Hezbollah’s brutality. Together they have made life more precarious for Christians in the country.
The release of Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury from a Beirut prison last week was welcomed by US President Donald Trump, who thanked the Lebanese government for its role in his release and return to the US. Fakhoury had been a member of the pro-Israel, majority Christian South Lebanon Army (SLA), a now disbanded militia which fought against Hezbollah in the south of the country before Israeli forces withdrew in 2000.
Hezbollah – which has the final nod on any issue related to Israel in the country – allowed Fakhoury’s release to save its ally, President Michel Aoun, and his circle from the threat of US sanctions. However, granting Aoun this favor came with a price tag. Shortly after Fakhoury’s release, Antoine Hayek – an-other former pro-Israel militiaman who had repented decades ago and was living a normal life in Lebanon — was killed.
Fakhoury’s initial arrest was due to Aoun and his circle, who had reached out to Lebanese diaspora members like Fakhoury – only for him to be arrested on arrival when he returned to Lebanon for the first time since 2000.
Fakhoury had previously immigrated to the US, where he became a US citizen, and opened a restaurant in New Hampshire. In the US, Fakhoury connected with a network of Lebanese-Americans who, be-tween 1992 and 2005, lobbied Washington to support the now President Michel Aoun, who was then a former military commander living in exile in France following his unsuccessful fight against the Syrian occupation at the end of the Lebanese civil war.
Aoun eventually appeared before Congress, and participated in panels at a few pro-Israel groups, with whom he shared animosity toward Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime. The political landscape changed after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, widely believed to be at the hands of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became increasingly isolated internationally, and began to reach out to Aoun to form an alliance to retain Syria’s influence in the country after it withdrew its troops in 2005.
In isolation and having lost Hariri’s regional and international network, al-Assad probably thought he could lean on Aoun’s network in Washington to repair his shattered image. The Aounist network obliged.
But having struck a deal with al-Assad, Aoun’s American network splintered, and many, like Fakhoury, abandoned the general. Those who stayed with Aoun lost all credibility and became isolated in the US, so much so that Aoun’s son-in-law and presidential hopeful Gebran Bassil visited Washington three times over the past year, while serving as Lebanon’s foreign minister, but was not granted any meetings with US officials.
To shore up Bassil’s chances of becoming president after him, Aoun’s network reconnected with Lebanese-Americans like Fakhoury, who had withdrawn their support for Aoun and still carried favor in Washington. Even after becoming president in 2016, Aoun maintained an old promise of “bringing home all Lebanese exiles,” mainly former SLA militants, the majority of whom are Christians like Aoun.
Aoun and Bassil then invited Fakhoury back to Lebanon, promising him safety. But when Fakhoury arrived in Beirut he was arrested and tortured. His release only came after the threat of US sanctions on Aoun’s inner circle, who begged Hezbollah to let the court release Fakhoury.
But Fakhoury’s release, and his extraction via a US military helicopter that picked him up from the US embassy compound north of Beirut, caused Hezbollah immense embarrassment. Revenge against any former SLA militant, therefore, seemed to be Hezbollah’s surest way to repair its anti-Israel image.
Hayek was found dead with two bullets in his head on March 22, just three days after Fakhoury’s realease.
Like all previous murders, including the assassination of Hariri in 2005, no credible party has claimed responsibility for the crime, which is in Hezbollah’s interest. Lebanese police, usually competent at solving crimes, reportedly have no leads on Hayek’s assassination.
Hayek had severed his connection with Israel and the SLA as early as 1992, when he defected, was reintegrated in Lebanon, and joined the police force. He served in the force until his retirement, after which he opened a grocery store. Despite being a Christian, Hayek never left south Lebanon, which is dominated by Shia partisans of Hezbollah and its junior partner Amal.
Hayek’s death could have been avoided, had Bassil been savvy enough to understand that he can only become Lebanon’s president on the dead bodies of Christians. While Aoun and Bassil have always depicted themselves as the ones who restored “Christian rights in Lebanon,” it is because of Aoun and Bassil that life has become more difficult not only for Christians in Lebanon, but for Christians across the Levant and anywhere in the region under the influence of the Iran-led axis.
The “minority alliance” that Aoun and Bassil are trying to sell to Christians as their only security guarantee is no alliance at all, but Christian submission to Iran and its proxies. The mullahs are not known for looking for partners, but only for subordinates.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is an Iraqi-Lebanese columnist and writer. He is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. He tweets @hahussain.