The bombing in the heart of Beirut on Friday morning, which killed leading Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah, was no random terror attack or communal reprisal. It was a targeted assassination, which would have required careful reconnaissance, detailed intelligence, and complex logistics.
The blast that destroyed Chatah’s car, leaving little but shredded metal and a torn vehicle license that identified its owner, took place not very far from where Rafik Hariri, former prime minister and the towering figure of modern Lebanon, was assassinated by a vast bomb in February 2005.
Chatah, an urbane former Lebanese ambassador to the US and economist at the International Monetary Fund, was a close adviser to Hariri and served later as finance minister under his son Saad Hariri, the prime minister brought down in 2011 after a bitter power struggle between the Hariris’ Sunni-led Future movement and Hizbollah, the powerful Shia paramilitary group that now dominates Lebanon.
Chatah continued as chief adviser to Saad Hariri, who lives in Paris as a precaution against precisely this sort of assassination. Described by a colleague yesterday as “one of the brains behind the Future movement and March 14th [opposition coalition]”, Chatah died along with his bodyguard and at least four other people.
Lebanon has suffered a spate of tit-for-tat bombings since the summer, after Iran-directed Hizbollah forces intervened decisively on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its nearly three years-long war with mainly Sunni rebels across the border in Syria. Last month, the Iranian embassy near Hizbollah’s stronghold in south Beirut was targeted by a double suicide attack that killed 25 people.
Lebanon has been without a government since March, when Hizbollah brought down a coalition it dominated, ostensibly to tighten its grip on security at home as it drove deeper into the conflict in Syria. The multi-confessional Lebanese army, with which the Shia paramilitaries acknowledge coordination, had tightened security across the country in the run-up to Christmas, although its stationing of tanks at the entrance to shopping malls may have been more effective in deterring shoppers than bombers.
Yet this latest attack may be related as much to the power struggle in Lebanon that has raged since the killing of Hariri triggered the withdrawal of Syrian troops – occupying most of Lebanon since early in the 1975-90 civil war – as to the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict spreading out of Syria into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
After the Assad regime withdrew its troops, a series of assassinations eliminated anti-Syrian politicians, officials and journalists. In October last year, General Wissam al-Hassan, a spy chief associated with the Hariris, was killed by a car bomb in east Beirut. In a tweet just hours before he was killed yesterday, Chatah – at the centre of abortive negotiations to form a new governing coalition – said “Hizbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years”.
But rather than direct spill-over from Syria, his murder may be connected to the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which has charged five members of Hizbollah in the murder of Rafik Hariri and other opponents of Syria, whose trial in absentia starts in The Hague on January 16. Sources inside the Hariris’ Future movement and connected to the STL argued that yesterday’s attack was “a message” addressed to the tribunal. Colleagues of Chatah inside Future had, furthermore, been working on the premise that Hizbollah would act with restraint, avoid reprisals and do its utmost to keep the lid on Lebanon, a rearguard it needs to keep secure as long as it is fighting in Syria.
Yet it has always been a feature of violence in the Middle East that those who instigate it presume they can control it, and in the whirlwind now raging across the Levant there is not much room for nuanced messages.