Dead, but right, in Beirut

In Beirut last week, Mohamad Chatah — the Lebanese Sunni leader, Hezbollah critic, former ambassador to the US and (possibly) future prime minister — was assassinated, presumably by Hezbollah and/or Syria, in a bomb attack downtown near the Phoenicia Hotel and Starco Centre.  For Beirutis, this location is particularly resonant as it is very close to St Georges, where the former prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive bomb blast in 2005.  For this reason, and others, Chatah seemed to know that he was at risk and in retrospect his final tweets read as full of portent.

It is Chatah’s open letter to Iranian president Hasan Rouhani, sent a week ago, that represents his most important last words.  As I have written before, Beirut in peacetime may feel as tranquil and prosperous as Santa Monica but these days Lebanon is on edge at the prospect that the brutal civil war raging next door in Syria will spill over the border; indeed, it is a tribute to the Lebanese that it has not done so already given Hezbollah’s decision to go all-in on behalf of the Assad regime.  Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is a master strategist but the move to fight so openly on behalf of Assad — one Chatah fiercely criticized — might prove a fatal misstep for him: Nasrallah undoubtedly calculated he needed to do it to keep Hezbollah’s financial and military supply lines open with Iran but it removes, once and for all, the fig leaf that Hezbollah retains its arms exclusively to defend Lebanon against aggression by Israel.

Chatah understood this.  To him, and many others in Lebanon, Hezbollah is chiefly a sectarian militia representing the Shias and its insistence on retaining arms when all of the other sects that fought in the 1975-1990 civil war were obliged to fold their militias into the national army is a constant menace to the integrity of Lebanon as a state.  As Chatah wrote to Rouhani: “[T]he presence of any armed militia in parallel to the legitimate armed forces of the state and operating outside the state’s control and political authority is not only in conflict with the Lebanese constitution, but also with the very definition of a sovereign state—any state…Moreover, the use of—or implied threat of using—Hezbollah’s weapons advantage to tilt the domestic political playing field has made the delicate task of managing the Lebanese political system almost impossible, and has led to a gradual systemic paralysis.”

There’s hardly a person in Lebanon outside the Shia community who wouldn’t recognize this as fundamentally correct; indeed, Lebanon didn’t have a government at all during the three weeks I spent there in 2009, largely because Hezbollah used an implied threat of violence to veto the formation of a majority coalition.  We will probably never know exactly why Chatah was killed but one day we’ll look back on the list of demands (based on the Baabda Declaration) that he sent to Rouhani and recognize that, mostly, he was right about what Lebanon needed to normalize its political system:

In our view, this would require the following concrete steps, to be agreed and launched through a special Security Council meeting or a special, wider support-group conference:

1. A declared commitment by all other countries, including Iran, to the neutralization of Lebanon as agreed in the Baabda Declaration. Clearly, it is not enough for Lebanon to declare a desire to be neutralized. More importantly, other countries need to commit themselves to respect Lebanon’s national desire;

2. Ending all armed participation by Lebanese groups and parties, including Hezbollah, in the Syrian conflict;

3. Establishing effective control by the Lebanese army and security forces over the border with Syria, supported by the United Nations if needed as permitted under UNSCR 1701;

4. Requesting the Security Council to begin the steps needed to complete the implementation of UNSCR 1701. This aims at moving Lebanon from the current interim cessation-of-hostilities status with Israel to a permanent cease-fire with U.N. security arrangements, which will end border infringements by Israel and establish complete and exclusive security authority by the Lebanese armed forces throughout the country.


Click here to read about the invisible map of Beirut showing the frontlines of any future civil war.  Or here to read all my posts on Lebanon and the Middle East.


One Response to “Dead, but right, in Beirut”

  1. John Nelson says:

    Sean, I wonder if fear of Sunni Jihadis moving over the borders of a Salafi Syrian state did not motivate Nasrallah as much as fear of the loss of financial and military pipelines? The necessity to go public with Hizbollah’s support for Bashir is, indeed, puzzling! All your suggestions are right-on ! Unfortunately, Lubnan since day one has always had armed groups willing to use force to
    influence the political system. Hizbollah is just the best organized, most clever, and strongest in that strained history.

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