December 12, 2007

Another Assassination In Lebanon, Another Syrian Hit?

Has Bashar Assad struck again? A car bomb killed a Lebanese Army general expected to take command of the military in the settlement over the presidency. It recalls the string of assassinations against anti-Syrian political figures, most notably Rafik Hariri, that almost certainly have their origin in Damascus. However, this case may be somewhat different:

A car bomb attack killed one of Lebanon's top military generals and at least two others Wednesday, the military and state media said, putting even more pressure on the country's delicate political situation.

The target of the attack, Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, a top Maronite Catholic in the command, was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman, if Suleiman is elected president.

Hajj, 55, also led a major military campaign against Islamic militants over the summer.

The blast is the first such attack against the Lebanese army, which has remained neutral in Lebanon's yearlong political crisis and is widely seen as the only force that can hold the country together amid the bitter infighting between parliament's rival factions.

Hajj may have attracted the assassination for his role in attacking "Islamic militants", which normally would describe Hezbollah -- but in this case means something entirely different. Hajj led the campaign against an al-Qaeda affiliate group based in a refugee camp in the north end of Lebanon, not against Hezbollah militias in the south. The primarily Sunni terrorists in Nahr el-Bared, Fatah Islam, had no known connections to the Shi'ite Hezbollah organization, and such ties are probably unlikely.

Hezbollah, for its part, has criticized the assassination, as has Michel Aoun, the pro-Syrian politicion and former army chief. Aoun supported Hajj's ascent to the command of the army. It seems unlikely that Syria would have had any objections to it either, and would not likely have risked alienating the Maronites who have allied themselves to Damascus through Aoun by killing one of their leaders in Hajj. Assad had no real reason to fear Hajj's control of the military.

This looks like an al-Qaeda operation. They would prefer to see political chaos in Lebanon in order to restart the bloody civil war and allow themselves to be players in it. AQ also has a reason to kill Hajj after Nahr el-Bared and the humiliating loss its Fatah Islam offshoot took in the refugee camp. If so, it shows that Fatah Islam was no fluke, and that AQ wants to make a serious play for Lebanon.


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