TCS Daily

Car Bombs Return to Beirut

By Michael Totten - December 13, 2005 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- Yesterday, after a quiet spell that lasted almost three months, the terrifying wave of car bomb assassinations against anti-Syrian journalists and political figures started up again in Lebanon. This time the target was Gebran Tueni, the editor-in-chief of An Nahar newspaper and a recently elected member of parliament. Three people were killed and at least thirty people were wounded when his car exploded in the town of Mekalis in the mountains above Beirut.

Tueni had only just arrived in Lebanon from France the day before after hiding out from assassins. He knew the death squads were still active and had him on their hit list. Perhaps, like many who live in Beirut, he thought the danger had passed when clearly it hadn't.

Mere hours later UN Special Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis released his second report in his investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The new report claims that Syrian officials burned "all the Syrian intelligence documents concerning Lebanon." Tueni was one of many witnesses interviewed by Mehlis in the investigation.

Gebran Tueni was a journalist, but he was not a reporter. He was both an editor and an editorial writer. Perhaps more than anyone else writing in Arabic inside Lebanon, he fiercely demanded freedom and democracy not only for Lebanese citizens but for Syrian citizens, too. The Cedar Revolution that ousted Syrian troops from the country earlier this year counted him as a hero.

The Lebanese Cabinet decided to ask the United Nations to create an international court both inside and outside Lebanon to prosecute those accused in all the assassinations, not just the one that killed the former prime minister. MPs from Hezbollah and Amal, Lebanon's two armed militias and political parties, stormed out of the session and say they may never return.

Someone from a previously unknown group named "The Strugglers for Unity and Freedom in Al Sham" sent a fax to news agencies claiming responsibility. "We have broken the pen of Gebran Tueni and gagged his mouth forever, turning An Nahar into a dark night." "Al Sham" is the part of the Middle East also known as Greater Syria and the Levant. It includes Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine.

This group is already being labeled a fall-guy front for the Syrians. In any case -- assuming it really even exists -- it sounds a lot like the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a political dinosaur which hopes to incorporate Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and also Cyprus -- both the Greek and Turkish sides -- into a Greater Syrian state. The party was founded in Lebanon in 1932 by Anton Saadah after he returned from a long stay abroad in Brazil, which he hated. Saadah modeled his SSNP after the Hitler and Mussolini parties in part because Germany and Italy were the sworn enemies of the two imperial powers in the region, Britain and France, at the time of its founding. Their emblem is a spinning red swastika.

Whether this "Al Sham" group split from the SSNP, arose just now autonomously, or is a fiction crafted by Syria to deflect responsibility, its purported goals really are supported by a small number of pro-Syrian people in Lebanon. Some of those people have committed acts of terrorism in Lebanon, Syria, France, and Greece on behalf of their dream of Greater Syria. If the Syrian regime did concoct a fake organization to take the heat off itself, it came up with a plausible one.

East Beirut convulsed at the news of the assassination. "We are closing tonight," said a bartender in a French-style café and bar in Gemmayze. "Everyone is closing down. We need to mobilize this entire country against the president." Every last restaurant, café, and bar in Gemmayze was shut by 7:00 p.m. Schools also cancelled their classes.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the man Syria's ruler Bashar Assad admitted was one of his proxies in Lebanon, is still in power even after the recent elections and even after he was named by Mehlis as a possible accomplice in the Hariri assassination. His approval rating in Lebanon has cratered, though amazingly he is still in power.

A newscaster on the radio grimly read the names of the shaheeds -- the martyrs -- who had been killed or at least targeted in Lebanon this year. Gebran Tueni. Samir Kassir. George Hawi. May Chidiac. Rafik Hariri. All those people were prominent anti-Syrian figures. Half were journalists. Many of the shaheeds in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon were suicide bombers. In Beirut, though, they are as likely as not to have been liberal writers.

So far no one who writes about Lebanese and Syrian politics in English or French has been targeted or even threatened by Syria. But writing about politics in Arabic is one of the most dangerous occupations in this country right now. The Syrian regime and its Lebanese stooges appear to fear little or nothing more than they fear the pen.

Helicopters hovered over the capital. A crowd of hundreds gathered in front of the steel and glass An Nahar tower next to Martyr's Square in a deathly hushed silence that later turned into a raucous political rally. The Virgin Megastore across the street shut off its dazzling display of Christmas lights to honor the dead and the grieving. The vigil was clearly multi-confessional. Lebanese flags were mixed with the party and sectarian flags of Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze. No one flew flags from the armed Shia parties Hezbollah or Amal, however. No one ever does at these rallies, nor does anyone ever fly the spinning red swastika of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A young man named Ribal with a goatee and a nose ring in his left nostril was tired of the pan-Arab unity rhetoric coming from some quarters of the Middle East. "Everyone who was with Syria before needs to shut up now. We are Arabs. But we are Lebanese before we are Arabs."

Another young man named Haig worried about the future. "If this keeps happening more people are going to start planting bombs. The terrorists are playing here. They are free to do whatever they want. Syria must be punished. The international community must put more pressure on them." As I thanked him and turned to go he said "Oh, and say hello to Mr. George W. Bush for me."

When asked who he thought murdered Gebran Tueni, Jad was dumbfounded. "Do you really need to ask that question?" he said.

Okay then, what should be done?

"The international community needs to deal with the Syrians. Lebanon is too weak. They need to do to Syria what they did to Saddam Hussein. Regime change. Definitely. Syria has the same regime as Iraq and it behaves the same way."

A large bearded man who preferred to remain anonymous was furious. "If it takes war to free us then we are ready for war. Gebran Tueni was killed two hundred meters from my workshop. Every day I saw him. The USA must resolve this. This is war."

Don't take the staunchest of those quotes too seriously. This was the activist crowd talking, and they were in no mood for moderation last night. Opinions in Hamra on the West side of the city were more measured.

Mansour, a self-described leftist, worried about pushing too hard against Syria. "The Iraqi experience tells us that regime-change by force doesn't work very well if the opposition is immature. Sanctions are a bad idea, too, because they only make regimes stronger by giving them power over limited resources. We need international prosecution that targets key people inside the government."

Charles Chuman, a media and political analyst, seemed exasperated. "The ball is in the Syrian court, but unfortunately you can't trust Syria to do the right thing. No one wants chaos in Syria, but the regime isn't sophisticated enough to diplomatically resolve the situation. All they need to do is cooperate. No serious person is pushing regime change."

Almost every single person I spoke to stressed the need for international assistance whatever they thought the proper solution might be. Lebanon is a terribly weak country. The state is fractured into sectarian fiefdoms. Since the armed Hezbollah militia still controls the border region with Israel and the suburbs south of Beirut, Lebanon still has yet to even regain its full sovereignty.

The international community needs to be careful. Foreign intervention of any kind from any quarter can be a real political lightning rod in this country. One sect is always willing to accept outside help on its behalf while at least one other is ready to vehemently or even violently fight against it. The irony, though, is that Lebanon can't become fully sovereign, independent, and stable without help of some kind from outside. Whoever does decide to help -- be it the United States, France, the European Union, or the United Nations -- had better have all of Lebanon, and not just a favored pet sect, in mind when they do so.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at


1 Comment

Syria needs regime change first
No outside force can directly help Lebanon "unify" -- and it's not truly clear they really want a unification which allows domination by a majoritarian coalition.

Democracy is a means towards limited government respecting human rights--Hong Kong under the Brits, without democracy, was in pretty good shape for most post WW II years.

Lebanon might well look at the Swiss Canton model, with each sect marking out their own semi-autnomous canton.

As Iraq's slow democratization occurs, ever greater internal pressure will be put on Syria to change. After Syria goes thru regime change, Lebanon will be much better off.

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