The killing of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on Tuesday is very different from the series of assassinations that plagued Lebanon last year in one critical respect: The identity of the assassins will be nowhere near as difficult to uncover. Gemayel, a leader of Lebanon's Maronite Christian community, was killed in broad daylight by three unmasked assailants who rammed his car, got out on foot and methodically fired at point blank range through the driver's side window, a spectacle seen by several witnesses (including a surviving occupant of the car).
In view of strong circumstantial evidence of Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Damascus is obviously a prime suspect. However, most informed observers are less certain of Syrian involvement this time around for two reasons.
The first is the lack of a clear motive. With the Bush administration currently considering a diplomatic opening to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the killing of a Lebanese government minister won't bode well for the embattled dictator.
Moreover, no one can easily recall the last time the Syrians killed someone in this fashion. The Syrians are masters of remote control extermination and are methodologically risk averse. One conceivable explanation would be that the Syrians blackmailed the assassins into carrying out the operation with the expectation that they would be later identified (after turning up dead) and leave a cold (or misleading) trail of evidence. While such convoluted plotting is by no means beyond the capability or imagination of Syria's spymasters, there are safer ways for Syria to eliminate players on the Lebanese chessboard.
It's also conceivable that a local proxy of the Syrians, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), went solo, or operated with support from Syrian quarters outside of Gen. Assef Shawkat's main military intelligence network. At any rate, the fact that Syria (or Syrians) could easily have pulled off the job is no longer the red flag that it used to be: The breakdown in Lebanese security over the past 18 months is such that any number of governments and organizations could have carried out this kind of operation.
Although Hezbollah has carried out skillful assassinations of combatants in the past (most recently, the January 2000 killing of Col. Akel Hashem, a senior commander of the now defunct South Lebanon Army), it has not targeted political opponents for death and has no reason to start now, particularly since the effect would clearly be to scuttle its campaign for a national unity government.
Given that any such national-unity government was slated to be formed under Saudi mediation, it's possible that anti-Saudi hardliners in Iran commissioned the hit, fearing that a mediated accord would reduce their influence in Lebanon. The details of the assassination do, in fact, bear some resemblance to the Islamic Republic's assassinations of political dissidents in Europe.
On the other hand, if blocking the formation of a national unity government in Beirut is a plausible motive, then the cast of possible culprits is broadened considerably. Al-Qaeda, a Sunni group, would certainly have an interest in scuttling Hezbollah's deeper imbrication in the Lebanese government. Whatever plans he may have in store for Israel down the road, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has worked assiduously to deny militant Sunni Islamist groups from operating in south Lebanon (fearing that they will try to instigate Israeli reprisals against Shiites that will cost him politically).
Finally, it's possible that the killing was carried out by Christian extremists seeking to incite sectarian hatred within their own community and reduce public support for Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which has allied with Hezbollah in pursuit of a national unity government. Unfortunately, "false flag" sectarian violence is not unknown to Lebanon. Members of the former Lebanese Forces (LF) militia were convicted (albeit by a pro-Syrian judiciary) of carrying out a February 1994 church bombing that left 11 people dead, apparently with the intention of reviving Christian demands for an armed militia. The fact that Gemayel's killers appear to have gathered intelligence about his itinerary within the Christian community (he was driving through a Christian suburb, without police escort, to pay his respects to a grieving family) has also raised eyebrows, though it's important to keep in mind that the SSNP and loyalists of President Emile Lahoud are also predominantly Christian.
If there is no smoking gun at this point, there is every reason to believe that an impartial investigation, bolstered by the full resources of the United Nations, can positively identify the killers of Gemayel. The international community must be resolved to follow the trail of evidence wherever it leads. The Syrians may have started the assassination game in Lebanon, but there is no reason to believe they are the only players today.
Gary C. Gambill, a political analyst for Freedom House and adjunct professor at College of Mount Saint Vincent, has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs.