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A History of Violence

Lee Smith

Bikfaya, where three people were killed and many others injured earlier this week by a bomb planted on a bus, is in the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon, and has hosted a large Christian community since well before the time of the Islamic conquests. In the past, the high mountain passes surrounding the area, with their breathtaking views, served to protect the Christians from intruders. During the Ottoman era, imperial administrators rarely braved the region at the risk of being cut to ribbons along any steep approach.

Bikfaya is also the hometown of the Gemayel family, and posters of the late President Bashir Gemayel decorate street signs, homes, shops, and cars almost a quarter of a century after his assassination at the hands of Syrian operatives. It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific motive for the murder, but his mulling over a deal with Israel was likely a major factor, and now there are Americans and even Israelis who say that Bashar al-Asad, the son of the man who murdered Bashir, is mulling over his own deal with Israel. But Bashar al-Asad must have the Golan Heights back, first, and those Americans pushing for diplomatic engagement with the regime are keen to negotiate just such a deal. Still, Bashar may place a higher priority on maintaining its influence in Lebanon. The most recent bombing is just another thread in a long family narrative about the Asads and Gemayels. Bashir’s nephew, Pierre, a minister in the Siniora government, was gunned down in a Christian suburb of Beirut in November of last year. Pierre’s father, Amine, another former president of Lebanon, was in Washington last week, where he heard strong words of support for Lebanon from President Bush, the vice president and the secretary of state.

The attack, says Tony Badran a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, may have been a warning to Gemayel. “It may be that the Syrians thought Gemayel was going to Washington to campaign to replace Lahoud as president, and Damascus showed they would literally kill to stop it,” says Badran. “It wouldn’t be the first time. Remember that in 2004 Asad reportedly threatened Hariri that ‘only he appoints the Lebanese president.’ If not, as he told Hariri, ‘he would break Lebanon over his head.”

Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri two years ago, every single attack in Lebanon has targeted either a Christian or a Christian area. Lebanon was once a country known as a refuge for minorities. And yet, Christians have been singled out for attack by a Syrian regime that is itself run by another Middle Eastern minority, the Alawis.

Before Hafez al-Asad made a deal of political convenience with Imam Moussa al-Sadr to acknowledge the Alawis as real Shia Muslims, their blood was believed to be licit, by both Shia and Sunni. The fourteenth century jurist Ibn Taymiyya ruled that the Alawis were “more infidel than Jews or Christians, even more infidel than many pagans.”

That fear of being swept along in a current of their own blood, as they themselves are letting Christian blood, is what keeps the Alawi regime from being able to negotiate or make peace with Israel, or indeed anyone, and it is why they embraced Arabism and became more “Arab” than even the Sunnis. It is also why they must be flexible enough to incorporate Islamism as well. As a minority sect running a Sunni majority state in a Sunni majority region, they have no choice but to follow regional trends. And they have no legitimacy except for what they can establish through violence. That is how things work in Syria. In Lebanon, there is an agreement between minorities, however difficult, to share power. It’s not surprising that Syria’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, would prefer to play by Syrian rules.

Hezbollah represents much of Lebanon’s Shia minority, and that minority’s large population and rage have led much of the Western press corps to believe that the huddled masses camping out in downtown Beirut are the long suffering wretched of the earth—and thus entitled to bring down the government, and with it the international tribunal investigating Hariri’s murder. It was the particularism of Shia suffering this past summer that made them the darlings of the international community, even though the fanatical Islamic resistance made use of an entire nation, Christians, Sunnis, and Druze alike, to shield them and abet their anti-Semitic eliminationist fantasies. Yes, Shia civilians were killed, but only when Hezbollah took them to war against Israel. Christians are being killed because they won’t submit to the will of Hezbollah’s patron in Damascus. “Remember that this is the first time that civilians have been targeted since Hariri’s murder,” says Lebanese analyst Elie Fawaz. “This is a very serious escalation.”

It is also a message meant to remind observers of Syria’s capacity to inflict violence in Lebanon. Syria can do anything it pleases in the land of the cedars. The sporadic car bombs in Lebanon these past two years that picked off one or maybe two people, these weren’t warnings or even threats. A threat would look something like a large explosion in a Gemmayze bar, a Monot nightclub, or the ABC mall in Ashrafiyeh. Such an attack would kill and maim scores of Lebanese civilians. So far, Asad and his regime have merely been making enough violence to keep their place in the conversation Syria wants to have with Washington about the future of the Middle East. And first on the agenda is Lebanon.

So, will the wise men who counsel we sit down and talk with Damascus—the Brzezinskis, the Powells, the Obamas, the Bakers, and Djerejians—will they have the decency at last to recognize what their high-minded posturing can no longer obscure? This is how Syria negotiates, with its knife on the table and dripping with blood.

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