Round Up the Usual Suspects

The accusation leveled at the Syrians by Saad Hariri, son of assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, hints by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora urging the establishment of an international tribunal to try Hariri's killers, and statements by anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon put Syria at the top of the list of suspects in yesterday's assassination of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.

However pure political and diplomatic logic makes it difficult to see Damascus behind the assassination. The day he was killed, Syria chalked up one of its most significant diplomatic achievements since its defeat in Lebanon in April 2005: the renewal of full diplomatic relations with Iraq.

Syria is also on its way to achieving a semi-official stamp of approval from Washington as an entity capable of calming tensions in Iraq. Syria could have been on the verge of an important political success in Lebanon - the possible fall of Fuad Siniora's government, which would mean Syria could increase the power of its supporters in the government by means of the Hezbollah ultimatum. If that came about, the international tribunal on the murder of Rafik Hariri would be delayed, or at least be of a sort convenient for the Syrians. With three such achievements, the last thing Damascus needed was a new accusation of a political murder in Lebanon.

When Hariri was murdered in February 2005, Syria apparently thought it could repress the forces of reform through political assassination. Now things are different. Hezbollah is about to pave the way for both itself and Syria to direct political influence. No wonder, then, that it was Hezbollah, about to organize huge rallies against Siniora said the Gemayel killing was a plot woven, no less, by elements hostile to Hezbollah. The organization says it will now be difficult to persuade the Lebanese public to oppose a government one of whose ministers was assassinated.

And why Pierre Gemayel? He may have been a promising young leader expressing anti-Syrian sentiments, as befitting a scion of the Gemayel family. But he was not among the first pick of Lebanese leaders. On the other hand, more prominent leaders are surrounded by small armies.

One of the Syrian intelligence organizations might have been behind the act, as revenge on those it deems responsible for the bashing it will take at an international tribunal. If that is true, it puts Syrian president Bashar Assad in an embarrassing position, with elements of his regime working behind his back.