When a key cabinet official in Lebanon was gunned down in a Beirut street Tuesday, many were quick to blame the killing on Syria. Syria has sharply denied involvement. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Syria may be the prime suspect, but there are other, less obvious suspects as well.
Syria may have had the motive to kill Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. He was opposed to Syria, and backed efforts for a U.N.-sanctioned tribunal on the killing last year of Rafiq Hariri, another anti-Syrian politician.
Syria denies involvement in either the Gemayel or Hariri killings.
Middle East analysts say the motive may be to destabilize the Lebanese government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - who has blamed Syria - heads a fragile coalition government made up of Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Maronite Christians. Last week, six pro-Syrian and pro-Hezbollah ministers resigned. David Schenker, senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Near East Institute, points out that the resignations, coupled with the Gemayel assassination, put the government close to collapse.
"It's the primary motivation," Schenker says. "The constitution says that if more than a third of the cabinet ministers resign or leave, and, by implication, or if they're killed, then the government falls. And right now with the Hezbollah resignations, you have six ministers gone. With the killing of Gemayel you had seven. Eight is a third, and nine is more than a third. So they're two away. I would expect that more people will be killed, that there will be more attempts on the lives of cabinet ministers."
Some analysts say the timing of the killing leads them to question whether Syria was behind Gemayel's death. Gemayel was killed just as Syria restored relations with Iraq, a major diplomatic breakthrough for Damascus. So, these analysts say, there is no shortage of other suspects.
Pierre Gemayel was a member of a prominent Maronite Christian family. Wayne White, a former senior State Department Middle East analyst, points out that he was killed in broad daylight in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, which he says could indicate a possible internal Maronite feud.
"Do we think that the Syrians are so flat-footed that they are knocking these people off willy-nilly in the face of an angry world community? Or could it be, for example, the much-fractured Maronite with a lot of its own little scores to settle? The Gemayels [family] are not immensely popular among certain quarters of the Christian community. They could be bumping off their enemies within their own community knowing full well that the world will rush and blame the Syrians. There could be little plots within plots here," White says.
There is a political divide in the Maronite community. Some support Michel Aoun in his alliance with Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran. Others side with Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister. Fares Braizat, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the split could have escalated.
"So there is definitely a split within the Maronite community in Lebanon. And whether there has been an internal struggle that has evolved to be a violent one, we are not sure. But we cannot rule out any possibility," Braizat says.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says Gemayel's killing could have been done by Hezbollah itself, acting as a proxy for Syria or Iran. But he does not rule out that an outside group, perhaps from al-Qaida, could be responsible, seeing the killing as a way to derail any possible U.S. effort to seek Syrian and Iranian help in stabilizing Iraq.
"There are these al-Qaida groups of various kinds. And some of them are anti-Hezbollah, and they have been making threats about this government as well," Landis says. "They're the kind of people who in this super-heated environment, this giant tug of war and this delicate game, could easily try to profit from this by freelancing."
Still, most analysts believe Syria is the prime suspect in the killing of Pierre Gemayel, having, as detectives like to say, motive, means, and opportunity. But, Fares Braizat points out, without any proof or claim of responsibility, speculation remains the name of the game.