As Syria tears itself apart and Israel braces for conflict, neighbouring Lebanon, the Middle East’s perennial battleground, is staring once more into the abyss amid its incessant sectarian rivalries, the forthcoming tribunal on the killing of Rafik Hariri in which Hizbullah officials stand accused, and fears that the assassins are being unleashed once more.

Ed Blanche writes from Beirut

Samir Geagea, a Maronite Catholic leader who has the dubious distinction of being the only one of the 1975 90 civil war chieftains to serve any jail time, announced that he survived an assassination attempt on 4 April as he walked in the grounds of his fortress home in Maarab, high in the Kesrouan mountains near Beirut.

The way Geagea tells it; at least two shots were fired at him from a hill more than 1 kilometre away. One bullet whistled past his head, the second past his chest as he leaned forward to pick a flower.

“It missed me by chance, or providence,” the tall, balding Maronite former warlord told a hastily assembled news conference at his heavily guarded compound hours after the purported shooting. “It depends whether you’re a believer or not.

“It was not a message,” he declared. “They wanted to end it all … We’re facing a real series of crimes. Some thought that the assassinations ended after the Doha Accord, but this is not the case.”

Geagea was referring to the Qatar-mediated agreement reached in Doha in 2008, after Hizbullah stormed parts of Sunni-dominated West Beirut when the Sunni- led government sought to challenge the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite movement, by seizing its private fibre-optic communications network.

Eighty-plus people were killed in several days of gunbattles that pushed Lebanon closer to the brink of new civil strife than at any time since the end of the conflict in October 1990.

With Hizbullah getting nervous at the prospect of its Syrian patron, President Bashar Assad, being toppled in an uprising that is becoming increasingly militarised, while four of Hizbullah’s members are about to be tried in absentia for the 2005 assassination of Sunni statesman Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese sense a new conflict is brewing.

It has long been the battleground for regional powers and their local, bought-and paid-for allies.

But what is happening in Syria and Lebanon now is also taking place against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War between the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and Obama intends to wage undeclared wars against global terror the expansionist ambitions of Shiite dominated Iran, an extension of the centuries-old religious rift between Sunni and Shiite across the Muslim world.

Political animal

Some say that the evidence Geagea’s people presented about the reported assassination attempt against the man also known as “al Hakim”, a feared sectarian warlord who struck fear into the hearts of many during the civil war, particularly those of his Maronite rivals, falls short of being totally convincing.

Lebanon’s security authorities are investigating, of course. But, as political analyst Michael Young wrote in Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper: “What will be interesting to determine …is how the Lebanese Forces leader uses the incident, as he prepares for an essential moment in his political resurrection after his release from prison in 2005, namely parliamentary elections next year.

“That’s not to suggest the sniper attack was a set-up. But Geagea is a political animal par excellence, and someone shrewd enough to employ all the means at his disposal to ensure that he can bring a substantial bloc to parliament and challenge that of Michel Aoun,” his main Maronite rival and pro-Syrian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Geagea, a fierce Lebanese foe of the Assad dynasty, is one of the most likely targets for Syria and its Lebanese proxies, which are led by Hizbullah and the thuggish Syrian Social Nationalist Party based in West Beirut.

Geagea’s political allies in the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance have heartily endorsed his version of events, if only because, by inference, it points an accusatory finger at their pro-Syrian rivals, primarily the Damascus regime and its Lebanese proxies, Hizbullah and Aoun.

But it’s unlikely in the extreme that either would have tried to kill Geagea without the sanction of Damascus, and there’s considerable scepticism that the Syrian regime would seek to foment unrest in Lebanon at a time while Assad and his Alawite minority are fighting for

survival at home.

“We have the question of what would the Syrians really gain from destabilising Lebanon?” observed Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut. “Disturbing Lebanon will not abate the uprising in Syria.”

As for Hizbullah, he said, given its alliance with Syria, which it depends on for its arms supplies, the movement is “lying low and doing its best to keep the situation in Lebanon quiet.”

Still, given the culture of political assassinations in Lebanon and deepening concerns among the Lebanese that their battle-scarred country is sliding towards another spasm of sectarian savagery, it is entirely possible that someone did take a shot at Geagea.

Aoun’s war

He was careful not to accuse anyone by name, but both Geagea and his advisers left little doubt that they saw the hand of Syria, or one of its Lebanese proxies, in the alleged assassination attempt.

But it must be said that, like many of his wartime contemporaries who are still among the living, Geagea has no shortage of enemies, Christian as well as Muslim.

Aoun, a former army commander who found himself interim president in the last days of the civil war, is seen as Geagea’s main opponent in the Christian camp, driven by a messianic political ambition that Hizbullah and the Syrians, who he once fought, have found useful in keeping Lebanon divided.

The former general, who his adoring followers christened “the Lebanese Napoleon”, waged a quixotic war vagainst Syria in the final convulsive phase of the civil war. He also fought Geagea for control of the Maronite enclave.

The fighting caused immense destruction in the Christian sector before Basher Assad’s late father, Hafez, “the Lion of Damascus”, smashed Aoun’s Maronite loyalists with overwhelming force, and tacit US approval, on 13 October 1990, to end the civil war.

Aoun was lucky to escape with his life and find sanctuary in the French embassy. Fifteen years later, with the blessing of Damascus, he returned from exile in France after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s leading statesman, which led to an international outcry that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

The Syrians counted on Aoun’s 2005 return dividing the Maronites and keeping Lebanon’s fractious tribal leaders at each other’s throats, and thus more easily controlled by Damascus for its economic benefit.

Aoun’s army and Geagea’s militiamen clashed repeatedly in the heaviest Christian vs Christian fighting of the civil war.

Now both are eying the presidency, which under a national political accord is reserved for Maronites only. Indeed, Aoun forged his once unthinkable alliance with Hizbullah in 2005 because he – and Hizbullah -saw that as his way to the presidential palace.

Following the Hariri assassination in Beirut on 14 February 2005, Syria pulled out some 30,000 troops and its pervasive intelligence services from Lebanon, supposedly ending a 29-year quasi-occupation.

But hundreds of their agents stayed on under cover to control Assad’s Lebanese allies and to ensure that Syria’s power over the country’s politics and security remained.

Hizbullah on trial

Pretty much every political twist and turn in Lebanon since then has been a consequence of Hariri’s assassination, and the forthcoming trial of his suspected killers by a UN-mandated tribunal ensures his murder in broad daylight in the centre of Beirut will remain central to Lebanon’s fate for some time to come.

Hariri was assassinated in a massive suicide truck bomb that destroyed his entire six-car motorcade after he defied the Syrians and was mustering international support for Lebanese efforts to throw off the Damascus yoke.

Syria strenuously denied having anything to do with the assassination, which the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) has now laid at the door of Hizbullah, Syria’s key ally in Lebanon and the creature of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

After Hariri was killed, along with 22 other people, seven other prominent anti-Syrian figures were also assassinated and several more wounded in attempts to kill them.

The STL has indicted four members of Hizbullah, two of them senior figures, for Hariri’s murder. They will be tried in absentia since Hizbullah refuses to hand them over. And, since Hizbullah now dominates the government, it’s unlikely any official effort will be made to apprehend them.

It seems unlikely that anyone will ever stand trial for the Hariri assassination at the tribunal’s court in The Hague without a lot of blood being shed in Lebanon. No suspects have been named regarding the other assassinations. That’s not unusual in Lebanon, where over the decades no one – except, ironically, Geagea – has ever stood trial for the assassination of what now amounts to a dozen leading national figures, including two presidents, a prime minister and three party leaders, between 1977 and the immediate aftermath of the civil war.

Other attacks

The attack on Geagea has intensified fears in Lebanon that the country is facing another wave of assassinations like the bloodletting that followed Rafik Hariri’s murder.

Ten days after the reported attempt on Geagea, another prominent anti-Syrian figure narrowly escaped being killed by gunmen. Journalist Mustafa Jeha, a Shiite political activist critical of Syria, said that a gunman in a black Mercedes fired on him with a pistol as he drove on the coastal highway south of Beirut on 14 April.

His silver Mercedes was hit six times, with three rounds hitting the windscreen, but Jeha, 26, was not hurt. He had recently launched the Lebanese Sovereignty Movement that is highly critical of Hizbullah.

Jeha’s father, also named Mustafa, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen while driving in Beirut on 15 January, 1992. He too was an outspoken critic of Syria. There were no claims of responsibility for the new attacks, as was the case in the 2005-2008 killings but there are sinister similarities.

All the apparent targets are anti Syrian. The new attacks coincide with a crisis in Damascus, as did the earlier wave when the Syrian regime feared its grip on Lebanon was being weakened because Rafik Hariri, having turned against Damascus with US, French and Saudi support, was expected to win parliamentary elections that would challenge Syrian mastery over Lebanon.

This time around, Syria is concerned that its control of Lebanon is slipping again, with anti-Syrian parties of the March 14 alliance, including Hariri’s Future Movement and Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, allegedly aiding anti-regime forces inside Syria with arms and money.

Plots galore

In January, the An Nahar daily reported that the intelligence arm of the overwhelmingly Sunni Internal Security Forces (ISF) had thwarted an attempt to assassinate the ISF chief, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi and the intelligence branch commander, Col. Wissam Al Hassan.

The plot, the anti-Syrian newspaper reported, apparently involved planting a car bomb near ISF headquarters in the Achrafiyeh district of East Beirut, with Hassan most likely the primary target. Rifi confirmed the report.

Other sources said there were two assassination teams who planned to plant two cars, each containing large amounts of explosives, on two side streets that Rifi and Hassan would likely use to drive to the headquarters building for a top-level security meeting in late January.

The bombs were to be detonated by remote control. But sources say Rifi was tipped off by unidentified intelligence sources about the planned ambush.

There were clear similarities to the Hariri assassination. Hassan had been extremely close to Rafik Hariri, having been assigned by the ISF as the head of the then prime minister’s official security detail, which was separate from Hariri’s own security team.

It was Hassan who found out some time before Hariri’s assassination that Ali Al Hajj, another senior security official seconded to the prime minister’s security apparatus, was also working for Syrian intelligence.

Hajj was removed from Hariri’s retinue and later promoted to general and given command of the ISF. After Hariri was blown up, Hajj was one of four Lebanese security chiefs arrested on suspicion of involvement in the assassination because of their loyalty to the regime in Damascus.

It was Hajj who ordered his men to remove the blackened hulks of Hariri’s motorcade wrecked when the truck bomb containing some 2,000 pounds of high explosive was detonated on Beirut’s fashionable corniche, in what was seen as a deliberate effort to eliminate vital forensic evidence.

The generals were all incarcerated in Roumieh Prison near Beirut for four years at the behest of the UN team investigating the Hariri assassination until their release on 29 April, 2009, because of what was described as a “lack of evidence”.

Officers killed

Other Sunni officers in the ISF and the army, where Shiites make up the majority of troops, who were deemed hostile to Syria and its Lebanese allies were among those killed in the bloody aftermath of Hariri’s murder.

Capt. Wissam Eid, a senior communications analyst with the ISF’s intelligence branch, was assassinated by a bomb on 25 January, 2008, after he had linked Hizbullah to the Hariri murder through cellphone links. Eid’s evidence, circumstantial though it is, is the centerpiece of the special tribunal’s case against Hizbullah.

A few weeks earlier, on 12 December, 2007, Brig. Gen. Francois al-Hajj (no relation to Ali al-Hajj), the head of the army’s operations directorate, was killed in a roadside bombing as he drove to the Defence Ministry. At the time, the general was expected to be promoted to army commander to succeed Gen. Michel Suleiman, who became president in 2008.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who is considered neutral in the conflict between the pro- and anti-Syrian factions, sought to play down the reported plot to kill Hassan and Rifi. He said it “was blown out of proportion” and was probably the work of “a fifth column” seeking to stir “sectarian strife”.

That could well be true given the intrigue seething in Lebanon at this time. But the Lebanese are clearly becoming extremely jittery as the bloodletting in Syria escalates, with indications that the Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda may be moving in, from Lebanon and Iraq, to bolster the outgunned and badly fragmented Syrian opposition being slaughtered by Bashar Assad’s forces. n Algeria fears an eruption of violence across the entire region and its government has raised its security alert to the highest level