BOSTON - The assassination of Lebanese member of parliament Pierre Gemayel Tuesday sadly does not represent any new direction in Lebanese politics, where targeted killings have scarred the political landscape for years. But it will quickly accelerate and exacerbate existing tensions that reflect a much wider regional and global battle that has been underway for the past year.
The real issue at hand here is Syria's continued and deeply contested influence in Lebanon - even though Syrian troops left Lebanon three months after Damascus was blamed for the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. The rapid and robust international outcry and accusations against Syria, Iran and Hezbollah similarly indicate that this battle will not be decided only by local forces in Lebanon.
It is telling that the main political forces in Lebanon are still identified today as pro- or anti-Syrian. Immediate anger in Lebanon has been directed against the Syrians and their Lebanese allies - mainly Hezbollah and President Emile Lahoud, but also to an extent Christian leader Michael Aoun. They have all condemned the crime, avowed their innocence, and called for calm in Lebanon.
This crime is in line with half a dozen other attacks and killings of prominent Christian media and political figures in the 19 months after the Hariri assassination. The young Gemayel was not a leading political figure in terms of experience or influence; but, his pedigree Christian and Lebanese nationalist lineage made him a powerfully symbolic target for anyone who aimed to enrage the largely Christian-led anti-Syrian and pro-Western camp in Lebanon.
Many observers find it hard to see how Syria - if indeed it were the culprit - would benefit from committing such a crude crime, given its intense scrutiny by the Security Council-mandated investigation into the recent string of political assassinations in Lebanon. Syrian opponents, on the other hand, say the regime is trying systematically to terrorize and intimidate the Lebanese political class into submission, so that Damascus can revert to its previous status as overlord of all Lebanon.
Culpability and innocence are not the real issue at hand today. Rather, it is the ideological battle for the control of Lebanon's soul and political system - pitting Arabism and Islamism, on the one hand, against a liberal, Western-oriented cosmopolitanism on the other. That battle will be determined in years to come by events in Syria, Iran and Washington, more than in Beirut.
The fear for Lebanon now is that this assassination completes a terrible circle of violence and tension that threatens to explode into much worse degradation. In recent months, Lebanon has suffered a violent war with Israel, massive destruction of infrastructure and - mainly Shiite - residential areas, internal political threats and confrontations, a nearly crippled cabinet due to the resignation of six pro-Hezbollah members, the specter of massive street demonstrations, a stalled economy, more overt external political interference by Middle Eastern and Western powers, concerns about a growing Al-Qaeda-linked presence in the country, and renewed mutual squabbling about the legitimacy of the president and the cabinet.
The resumption of political assassinations threatens to explode the political situation along its major fault lines: Syria-friendly forces aligned around the core proven power of Hezbollah and its allies, and Syrian opponents centered around Hariri- and US-backed prime minister Fouad Siniora and his March 14 coalition.
Hezbollah in the past month has challenged the Siniora government politically, calling it a US puppet and demanding that it be expanded and revised to give Hezbollah and its allies a greater share of power. Speculation is rife that this aims primarily at emasculating the international tribunal being established now to try those who will be accused of the Hariri and other murders.
The United States and other Western powers forcefully support the Siniora government, just as they supported Israel in its military assault on Hezbollah in the summer. They expect the UN investigation of the Hariri murder and the new international tribunal to shatter or at least moderate the Syrian regime and security system that they blame for Lebanon's ills.
The real concern now is that the Gemayel assassination will trigger anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syrian anger that will aggravate internal tensions and turn them violent, while simultaneously heightening explicit American diplomatic confrontations with Hezbollah-backers Syria and Iran.
Washington may temper this approach if it decides it needs Syria and Iran to help it exit gracefully from Iraq - in which case Lebanon may get only rhetorical support, while Washington strikes a self-serving deal with Syria to salvage Iraq. This is the great fear of many Lebanese, especially after seeing Washington's commitment to Lebanese sovereignty and security go into temporary summer hibernation during Israel's attacks this summer. In either case, this spells rough days ahead in Lebanon and the region.
Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.