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The burial of former Lebanese Finance Minister Mohammed Shatah next to assassinated ex-premier Rafic al-Hariri in Beirut’s Muhammad al-Amin mosque was as striking and deliberate in symbolism as the towering structure itself.
Last Friday’s assassination of the Hariri family’s senior advisor and one-time U.S. ambassador was by similar method: a massive car bomb detonated under his convoy as it drove through the heart of Beirut’s upscale downtown district. As if to purposefully underscore the parallels and frame the post-assassination narrative, it also occurred just a few hundred yards from the site where the billionaire Hariri was murdered in February 2005.
Just as after Hariri’s killing, the calculated recriminations of the March 14 coalition, led by the Future Movement, came fast and furious. Blame was laid squarely at the feet of Hezbollah. March 14 supporters were quick to point out that the crime took place less than three weeks before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL; the U.N.-established court tasked with investigating the Hariri assassination) was set to open proceedings against four accused Hezbollah members.
The shoddy STL investigation, relying heavily on telecommunications data wholly compromised by Israeli intelligence and their captured agents, has been previously discussed.
Did the masterminds of the Shatah assassination hope the Lebanese population would turn against Hezbollah, already facing strong rebuke for its intervention in Syria by March 14 politicians (despite that the latter have implicitly lent support to radical takfiri elements involved in the Syrian conflict since its earliest days)?
As with all political upheavals in Lebanon, the question that must be asked is, “who benefits?” Does Hezbollah? Although Shatah was a stalwart March 14 operative who decried Hezbollah’s role in Syria, he was nevertheless regarded as a relative moderate. But the increasingly virulent sectarian discourse of those on the fringes of this political alliance (and many at its center) and the cover they have extended to extremists like fugitive Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, cannot be ignored. Beirut after all, is still reeling from recent twin suicide car bombings at the Iranian embassy followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of Hezbollah senior commander Hassan al-Lakkis. On Thursday, innocent Lebanese civilians were again victims of a car bomb detonated in the Haret Hreik neighborhood of Beirut’s Shia-majority southern suburbs, known as the dahiyeh.
“Moderate” Sunni politicians like Shatah are viewed as expendable, for their killing only serves to polarize the wider Sunni community by inciting sectarian hatred and thereby marginalize more reasoned voices. Even Lebanon’s Grand Mufti was not spared as he was accosted after mourners’ passions were stoked by Sheikh Ahmad al-Omari, the cleric who delivered the sermon at the funeral of a young man also killed in the assassination. As Al-Akhbar reports, “Omari attacked Hezbollah, describing it as the ‘party of the devil.’ He called on the Shia to ‘disown’ Hezbollah ‘if they are true believers,’ and stressed the ‘patience of the persecuted Sunni sect is running out.’”
Again, does Hezbollah achieve any gain, political or otherwise, with Shatah’s demise?
The irony is that the inflammatory rhetoric and policies of March 14 parliamentary bloc members have led to the exponential growth of radical forces in the country. One only has to recall how former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Bahia Hariri and others insinuated the Lebanese Army was responsible for provoking Salafist cleric al-Assir’s armed forces to launch an attack against them this past summer in Sidon, killing 18.
Son of the late prime minister and Future Movement head Saad Hariri also did not waste any time in essentially blaming the victims themselves for Thursday’s attack: “They are at the same time victims of [Hezbollah’s] involvement in foreign wars, particularly in the Syrian war.”
The northern city of Tripoli and the Ain al-Hilwah Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon have provided extremist groups with safe refuge. Details have now emerged pointing to a possible link between those in the camp and recent events.
Just as in Iraq, moderate Sunni politicians have been singled out for assassination by takfiris who seek to exploit their spilled blood, provoke co-religionists into committing crimes against civilians and stir a simmering sectarian pot.
Who are the likely perpetrators behind Mohammed Shatah’s assassination and the dahiyeh bombing?
The very same ones the U.S. and Saudi-backed March 14 coalition have emboldened.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.