RAY SUAREZ: Another murder, and new warnings of political chaos in Lebanon. Yesterday's assassination victim was cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, a major Christian figure in Lebanon's divided government and a critic of Syria.
The prime minister, Fuad Siniora, insisted this killing would not destroy his government or country, saying, "We will not allow assassins to control Lebanon's destiny or its people's futures."
Gemayel's assassination, which followed the resignations of six pro-Syrian cabinet members last week, means the government will collapse if one more cabinet member leaves or dies.
Many Lebanese were ready to blame Syria for the Gemayel assassination. He was the fifth anti-Syrian public figure to be killed in less than two years, although Syria has denied any role in the murders.
BASHAR JA'AFARI, Syrian Ambassador to the U.N.: Syria has nothing to do with this. Syria is affected directly or indirectly from such crimes, horrible crimes committed and perpetrated on the Lebanese scene. We have no interests whatsoever to the national reconciliation process in Lebanon.
RAY SUAREZ: But top Syrian security officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad, have been implicated in an ongoing U.N. investigation of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The six pro-Syrian cabinet members left the Lebanese government in an effort to prevent approval of a U.N. tribunal to pursue Hariri's killers.
The Lebanese people's response to Hariri's killing -- millions taking to the streets in what was called the Cedar Revolution -- led to the end of Syria's 29-year military occupation of Lebanon and the appointment of a government, including anti- and pro-Syrian factions, including representatives of the Hezbollah guerrilla movement.
And just as that government was trying to get on its feet, Lebanon again became a battleground for foreign forces, as Israel battled Hezbollah last summer. Large portions of the country were left in ruins; about a thousand people were killed and thousands more left homeless.
RAY SUAREZ: Now for some analysis of the Gemayel assassination and its implications, we're joined by Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. He was born and raised in Lebanon and is now an American citizen.
And Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He was a senior Fulbright scholar in Syria in 2005 and runs a Web site called SyriaComment.com.
Hisham, let me start with you. Between the end of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, what was going on in Lebanon?
HISHAM MELHEM, Washington Bureau Chief, An-Nahar: Greater tension, greater polarization, particularly between the Sunnis and the Shia, and a greater fear on the part of those who supported the government that it will be subjected to greater pressure from the Syrians and the Iranians and Hezbollah to bring it down or to enlarge it to the extent that Hezbollah and their allies would have absolute veto power on the decision-making process.
And that's why recently the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said, "Either you will enlarge it to give us a greater share, or you call for early elections, or we will meet you in the streets and bring it down." And they want that to prevent a serious international tribunal that would investigate the killing of Hariri and all those assassinations that took place, including the killing of two of my colleagues in An-Nahar.
And also, the other issue Hezbollah is insisting upon, which is not to discuss in any serious fashion what to do with Hezbollah's military wing, what to do -- the disposition of their weapons, and their status within Lebanon as a state within the state.
RAY SUAREZ: Joshua Landis, who would have an interest in having Pierre Gemayel killed?
JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, there's a real tug of war going on for Lebanon. With the United States' entrance into the region in 2003 in Iraq, the overall -- America was attempting to pull Lebanon out of Syria's sphere of influence. Syria is determined not to let that happen.
And after the Lebanon war this summer, the failure to destroy Hezbollah left Lebanon split into two. Hezbollah believes that there is -- a majority of the Lebanese people are in its favor and it wants to gain government power, and it's trying to bring down the Lebanese government.
There are many people who might have carried this out, but we have to see this in the context of this larger regional and great power struggle to pull Lebanon onto their side.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Joshua Landis, Pierre Gemayel's body was barely cold before accusations began to emerge against Syria. Is there reason to suspect either Syria itself or pro-Syrian interests inside Lebanon?
JOSHUA LANDIS: You know, everything goes to Syria. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, part of the Christians, and various Sunni leaders have all formed the coalition in order to bring down this government and to keep Lebanon in the sphere, Syrian-Iranian sphere.
And, you know, this is a struggle going on. We saw this summer Israel try to assassinate the leading Shiite leaders and to destroy Hezbollah in order to keep Lebanon firmly in America's orbit and to keep this government, the Siniora government, firmly in power. That failed. Now we see the other side shoving back.
RAY SUAREZ: Hisham, do you agree with that?
HISHAM MELHEM: I agree, in the sense that there is a confrontation now taking place between the United States and the West in general, and another coalition in the region led by Iran, supported by a third-rate partner, Syria, as well as Hezbollah and Hamas and the others.
Iran and its friends see at this moment, at this juncture in history, that America's moment in the Middle East is about to end. That is, the Bush administration's policy of spreading democracy and regime change in Iraq and that the United States is boxed in Iraq, it's in a defensive mode, its friends are on the defensive, and that Iran is on the ascendancy, as well as its own friends in Hamas and Hezbollah and all that.
After the recent war in the summer, there was an attempt in Lebanon to create this myth that Hezbollah and Iran and Syrians won the war. And so what you have now in Lebanon -- we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Lebanon's long traditional liberal Western orientation, and this Lebanon, this vision of Lebanon, to be replaced by an Iranian vision.
To put it bluntly, Ray, they want to turn Beirut into a Tehran on the Mediterranean, that is create a culture of resistance -- to put Lebanon in a perpetual mode of confrontation with the United States, the West and Israel, similar to the way Iran sees itself in the region.
Iran is the country that is on the ascendancy in the region. Whatever Syria has by way of regional influence is derivative from its Iranian connection and connection with Hezbollah.
They watch the American elections. They watched the debate here. They watched the expectations about the Baker-Hamilton report and everything. And essentially, they are ecstatic when they see this mass conversion in Washington that is taking place at this stage, mass conversion into the school of political realism.
Everybody today, Ray, in Washington is a political realist. And the Iranians and the Syrians are sitting pretty, expecting the Americans to sue for a way out of their deep hole in Iraq. And they are going to let you in, into a long, long historic bazaar.
And these people, the Iranians are very cunning. They're 4,000 years of political cunning behind them, and they are willing to inflict pain. And they are willing to endure pain. While I'm all for engagement, one has to do it with an open eye.
You want to engage the Syrians in Lebanon bilaterally? Fine, but the Syrian price is going to be high. They want to regain their previous hegemony over Lebanon, and Lebanon to them is more important than the Golan. In the case of Iran, they want recognition of their regional stature as the influential power here, as well as the nuclear file. Very big price.
RAY SUAREZ: Joshua Landis, Hisham just put a lot on the table, but a couple of things stand out: his suggestion that we're seeing the beginning of the end of a Western-leaning Lebanon and that it's a direct challenge to American influence in the region to push Lebanon in that direction. Do you agree?
JOSHUA LANDIS: I agree only partly. I think that he's drawn this very black-and-white picture of good and evil, and I don't think that's correct.
Syria is demanding a number of things. They're demanding the Golan Heights back that was occupied in 1967 by Israel. They want influence in Lebanon, and they don't want Iraq to fall apart. They want to be engaged in dialogue to find a solution to these problems.
And, you know, the United States and Syria have dealt together for two decades. And the U.S. in '91, when it first went to war against Iraq in the Gulf, had Syria on its side, because in a sense it said, "You can keep Lebanon in your sphere of influence." And Syria said, "Yes," they kept Lebanon in their sphere of influence.
And what happened to Lebanon during that period? It repaired itself in the civil war. It grew. Hariri was an ally of Lebanon, and he rebuilt Lebanon. It was pro-Western.
Because of Syrian influence and Syria's in Lebanon does not mean that the country turns into an Iranian -- you know, a small Iran on the Mediterranean. It means that Syrian interests are taken into concern, and it doesn't mean the end.
But I do think he's right on the sense that we see the tide flowing out of U.S. power. In 2003, the United States thought it was going to remake the Middle East, destroy its enemies, and build up friendly Western allies throughout the Middle East.
What have we seen? We've seen that all the elections that America has encouraged have brought forward Islamists who are angry at America -- that's in Palestine, in Egypt, Iran, in Iraq itself, and in Lebanon, with Hezbollah's gaining seats through elections.
Now those people want to push their advantage. The United States tried to destroy them in this war in the summer, and they failed. Now, what is the United States going to do? Are they going to go back and bomb these people? They can't. They don't have any more power.
And in a sense, Syria is letting them know that. Their allies are letting them know that, saying, "You come and talk to us. And concede some things to us, and we can stabilize this situation."
RAY SUAREZ: Hisham, Joshua Landis suggests both sides playing hands where the United States doesn't hold very many good cards, doesn't have very many good options at this point.
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. The United States does not have necessarily too many good options. At the same time, the price that's being asked or will be asked by the Iranians and the Syrians is going to be extremely steep. And many people in Iran are suing for, quote, unquote, "full victory," complete victory in Iraq.
And the Syrians who resisted American conditions and American demands three years ago when they were extremely weak are going to resist them now that they feel that they have been emboldened because of America's problems and because of the miseries of the Iraqis and the Palestinians in Lebanon.
I mean, these people are like vultures. I mean, they live off of the corpses of other victims in the region. They have nothing positive to propose.
The Iranians, it's a different case. Iran is a state. As Zbigniew Brzezinski said correctly, that's a serious country, and you have to take it seriously.
And engagement maybe would have been possible and preferable three years ago. Why do you think they suspended the uranium enrichment three years ago? Because they knew America was on the ascendancy. Now you're not dealing necessarily with governments who are going to be willing to give and take in Iraq.
And I'll tell you something else: If you know anything from the history of civil wars, from Afghanistan, to Lebanon, to the Spanish Civil War, to African civil wars, most civil wars, unfortunately, are settled by a victor and the vanquished, even the Iranians.
Take Iran and Iraq. They have two major Shia groups that support, but these Shia groups also fight each other. And it's going to be difficult even for Iran to control the situation.
This is not a case where it's like a faucet, you turn it off and on at will. Sometimes the local players, those who are doing the killing and the dying, manipulate their foreign patrons.
So it's an extremely difficult proposition to say to the Iranians, "Help us out of the mess in Iraq," when it is going to be even difficult for the Iranians to do it. The Syrian influence is very limited. They exaggerate it, but it's still very limited. The option is still, try to engage all the neighborhood, try to bring everybody else, but, you know, do it with open eyes.
RAY SUAREZ: Joshua Landis, very briefly before we go, what are the next steps in Lebanon itself? We've been talking region-wide for the past several minutes. What happens next right now in Lebanon?
JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, the Baker-Hamilton group gave their recommendation for dialogue with Syria and Iran, and I think that both Syria and Iran were waiting to see what would happen to that and, after the elections, when the Democrats won.
President Bush has come out and said, "We're not going to talk to them. We want them to respond in the way they should respond. They know what to do; they have to do it."
This was not the answer that everybody was waiting to hear. They don't believe that realism is the status quo in Washington today. They believe that the neocons are still in power and that Washington is going to maintain this war against Syria.
Syria is frightened. Syria is frightened that the sectarian chaos that has been broken out in Iraq and is threatening in Lebanon is going to threaten Syria, as well. They want to go back to a status quo ante, where they have influence and they have some control in the neighborhood. And America, I think, is going to be forced to bend to that. If it continues to resist, we're going to see more violence.
RAY SUAREZ: Joshua Landis, Hisham Melhem, thank you both.
HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.