Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Analysis and Request for Comments: who is behind the assassinations campaign in Lebanon?

Introduction: the latest assassination - Al-Manar reports:

Two years to the day to a bombing that killed Lebanese journalist Jibran Tueini, an explosion occurred in the Baabda area east of Beirut and claimed the life of Brigadier General Francois Hajj who heads the Lebanese Army Operations department. Four others were killed, presumably soldiers. The army command issued a statement confirming that Hajj had been killed in the explosion. "This morning, the criminal hand targeted head of army operations Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj with a bomb as he drove in his car opposite Baabda municipality, which led to his death along with a number of soldiers, and wounded others," said the statement.

Hajj had headed the grounded operations at the Nahr el-Bared camp, which ended in September with the army defeating the Fatah al-Islam militants. Hajj was tipped to replace the army's top commander General Michel Sleiman, who is the frontrunner to become Lebanon's next president. According to retired army Brigadier General Walid Sukkariyeh, martyr Hajj had an honorable history of patriotism. He had refused to cooperate with the Israelis during their occupation of Lebanon. Israeli occupation forces had bombed his car in his southern town of Rmeish and expelled to Beirut. In the late 80's Hajj was fighting along then army General Michel Aoun against Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces. According to Sukkariyeh, martyr Hajj was concerned over a rise of power by the Lebanese Forces. "I fear control by the Lebanese Forces and take vengeance on us," retired Brigadier General Sukkariyeh quoted martyr Hajj as saying.

Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea had earlier predicted that assassinations in the country have not ended. He proposed the Lebanese Army changes its doctrine. Changing the army doctrine means that Israel would no longer become an enemy state.

Brigadier General Hajj's assassination comes amid heightened tension on the political level over a delay to elect a new head of state.

Heroes Never Die

Family and friends of martyr Hajj reacted with grief and horror in his southern hometown of Rmeish, vowing he would always be remembered as a 'hero'.
"My son is a hero and heroes never die, he will remain alive in our hearts," cried Kafa al-Aalam, the mother of Brigadier General Francois el-Hajj. The 79-year-old woman beat her head in grief as other black-clad women attempted to calm her.
"I heard that there was an explosion, so I called him on his mobile. He did not answer, then I saw on television that my Francois is dead," she said. "He was due to marry his son over Christmas, he will never have to joy to see his son getting married.
"May God crush the hearts of all those who have crushed mine at the holiday season," she added, as female relatives embraced portraits of the 54-year-old slain general.

Hajj's 35-year-old sister, Esperance, wept silently as she recalled her brother as a loving man committed to his troops. "He was a very loving person. Why did they kill him? Because he was a hero? Because he fought against the terrorists," she said. In a nearby house belonging to Hajj's uncle, male relatives sat silently in the living room as villagers filed through to present their condolences. The general last came to his hometown on Tuesday, as he accompanied army chief Michel Sleiman on a tour of army positions and UN peacekeeping bases in the south.

Hajj is married to Lody Andraos. They have their son Elie, 25, their daughters Racha, 22, and Jessica, 20.

Hezbollah and Michel Aoun condemn assassination

Hezbollah issued a statement condemning the assassination of army Brigadier General martyr Francois Hajj. The statement denounced the assassination as a criminal act that targets the military institution and its role in preserving peace in the country. "The assassination targets the army and its doctrine that stipulates resisting occupation and adhering to independence," the statement said. Hezbollah's statement called for solidarity with the Lebanese army and working consistently and constructively to establish political agreement to save Lebanon from narrow considerations. "We are facing a severe national loss given that the martyr had been playing a patriotic role. We call for uncovering the circumstances of this crime and punishing the perpetrators." The statement offered Hezbollah's condolences to the military institution and the families of the martyrs.

The Head of the Change and Reform parliamentary bloc MP General Michel Aoun condemned the assassination of Brigadier General Francois Hajj and lashed out at Fouad Saniora's government and his interior minister Hasan Sabaa. Aoun said that Sabaa's term has been marred by more than 15 assassination cases, none of which have been solved. Aoun also criticized "political children" for releasing irresponsible statements and accusing this or that side of the assassination. "We are used to seeing a group exploiting a political crime locally and internationally every time such assassinations take place. Exploiting the crime and evading responsibilities signal a conspiracy between the beneficiary from the crime and the perpetrators, who could be the same person," the general said.

Aoun also criticized international security and intelligence bodies that are helping Lebanon solve previous crimes. "We have to know who is behind the ongoing obstruction especially that we were close to reaching an understanding to elect a president next Monday. We have doubts that those protecting us are the ones killing us. I do not want to limit my accusation to one side, however the circumstances of the crime lead us to believe that the this has been a protected crime."

When asked about the recent escalatory position by the head of the "majority" MP Saad Hariri upon his return from Saudi Arabia, Aoun said: "I felt pessimism when I heard those recent political stances." Hariri had threatened to "take steps that can speed up elections" and said in a statement: "We will not fail to take action if a president were not elected. We know what we have to do." General Aoun whose facial expressions reflected his deep regret and anger at the crime, offered his sincere condolences to the Lebanese army and the families of the martyrs.


It is quite obvious that Lebanon is undergoing a determined destabilization campaign. Currently, nobody seems to know for sure who might be behind these assassinations, although the Western corporate media usually points the finger at some nebulous "Islamists" or Syrian elements. Let me confess here that I do not know either "who done it". Still, I think some rational guesses can be made on the traditional crime-solving basis of 1) opportunity and 2) motive. Let's take the main actors one by one.

Christian Falangists: they definitely had the means (opportunity) to do so and most of these assassinations happened in areas controlled by these Falangists. Did they have a motive? Possibly. They are loosing power not only to the popularity of Hezbollah, but more generally to the Muslim birth rates in Lebanon. Still, to organize such a campaign of assassination would entail finding accomplices inside the Falange and not getting caught. This would be, I guess, rather dangerous and very difficult.

Hezollah: they are, by far, the most formidable force in Lebanon. Not only are they the most powerful and well-trained military force in Lebanon, but they also have the most sophisticated and capable intelligence apparatus of the entire Middle-East. Could they pull off such an assassination campaign? Undeniably. Hezbollah has an extremely effective counter-intelligence branch and their operational security has never been compromised, in particular at the higher levels (as far as I know). Hezbollah could count on Iranian support, but really, they would not need it at all, at least not inside Lebanon. How about motive? I would argue that Hezbollah has everything to loose from engaging in such assassinations. Hezbollah takes great pride from the fact that it never turned its guns on other Lebanese factions (with the exception of a minor Hezbollah-Amal clash once which was immediately contained). If any proof was ever found of Hezbollah's participation in these murders it would loose one of its most potent propaganda tools: the argument that it is solely a liberation movement for all the Lebanese people. Lastly, Hezbollah has nothing to gain from destabilizing Lebanon precisely at a time when it is about to be dropped in its hand as a ripe fruit. No a party on the rise like Hezbollah would be crazy to mess things up right now.

Syria: It is hard to estimate whether Syria really still has the means to organize such a campaign but let us assume that it might. Was is certain is that Syria now is in a very tough spot following the Hariri murder. I personally do not believe that Syria was behind this murder at all, but even if it was, the skillful exploitation of the Hariri assassination by the anti-Syrian forces (lead by the USA) resulted in such hell to pay for Assad and his regime that it would appear highly unlikely that they would ask for more. On balance, I would wager that Syria had neither motive nor opportunity to engage is such a systematic campaign.

Israel: Israel has a less than stellar record on assassinations and it badly screwed up so many times that it is hard to imagine for me that they could pull off nine murders in two years without really screwing it up again. Motive? You betcha Israel does. Destabilizing Lebanon, in particular at a time of the rise of the power of Hezbollah, would be trademark Israeli style. They could hope that a weakened Lebanon would also weaken Hezbollah and that should a civil war result and Hezbollah come to power as a result of it they would have the perfect pretext to continue bombing and raiding, if not re-trying an land operation.

USA: The USA's record on assisinating people is arguably marginally better then Israel's, but that does not apply to Lebanon where the USA has never been able to do much better than to subcontract its murders to the Falangists. Since the USA is not able to define its own foreign policy in the Middle-East but simply parrots whatever the Likud tells them to say, we can simply assume that if Israel has a motive, so does the USA.

Al-Qaeda: It is often overlooked that Al-Qaeda is becoming more and more powerful in Lebanon, not only under its own name, but under the name of its local franchise Fatah-Al-Islam. In fact, Hajj was chief of operations when Lebanon's army fought eventually defeated Fatah al-Islam (and destroyed Nahr al-Bared in the process). Wahabi Sunnis have been active all over Lebanon, including in the north, Beirut and Sidon in the south. Al-Qaeda has a reputation for good operational security and it can probably act somewhat 'under the radar' of most Lebanese security services which are used to other threats and targets. Al-Qaeda can only draw on many highly trained operators to direct or assist local assets. As for motive, Al-Qaeda would benefit more than any other faction from chaos in Lebanon as it has zero political prospectives in a stable situation.

Others: there are other interests and forces in the Middle-East and Lebanon, but I simply see no basis upon which to conclude that any one of them would have the motive and opportunity wage such a high-risk and high-visibility campaign in Lebanon. Therefore I will not even look any further into other more exotic culprits, at least until somebody provides me with a plausible reason to do so.

For all these reasons I guess my guess is that either Al-Qaeda or Israel are behind this terror campaign with, however, a preference for the Al-Qaeda theory. It is, of course, rather paradoxical to state that Al-Qaeda and Israel have the same political interests in Lebanon, but that paradox is only superficial. In reality they are both external forces who only care about Lebanon insomuch as it is a playground for their power schemes. They also both know that they have everything to loose from a stable and democratic Lebanon and everything to gain from chaos or civil war.

I might well be wrong in my guesses and I would welcome any comments, criticisms or insights of this short analysis.

The Saker