Mohamad Chatah, a leader of the ‘March 14’ coalition in Lebanon and former ambassador to the United States, was killed in a Beirut car bomb blast on Friday in perhaps the most chilling political assassination in Lebanon since former prime minister Rafic Hariri was killed in 2005.
Just a couple of hours before his death, Chatah tweeted the following message out to the world:
#Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs.
— Mohamad B Chatah (@mohamad_chatah) December 27, 2013
It’s a macabre epitaph for a man who spent his career pulling his country away from the impact of both Sunni and Shiite militants in favor of a vision of a modern, moderate and prosperous Lebanon. Chatah, who was born in Tripoli, the Sunni-dominant city in Lebanon’s north, was a top advisor to Hariri, and other relatively anti-Assad prime ministers, including Rafic Hariri’s his son Saad and Fouad Siniora. An economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund between the 1980s and 2005, Chatah served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States between 1997 and 2000. After Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Chatah returned to Lebanon, where he served as a vice-governor of Lebanon’s central bank and, from 2008 to 2009, its finance minister.
Since the 2005 assassination, Lebanese politics has been polarized between the ‘March 14’ coalition (comprised of moderate Sunnis and Maronite Christians) that opposed the role Syria played in internal Lebanese affairs and the ‘March 8’ coalition (comprised of mostly Shiite Lebanese, Greek Orthodox, other Sunnis and a minority of militant Maronites) that were more pro-Syria. Druze political leaders, the most prominent of which is Walid Jumblatt, are often play the determining role in which coalition holds power. As Syria has descended into civil war, however, the two coalitions have taken increasingly strong positions over Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Even as most of Lebanon’s political elite have strained to keep their country from being sucked into Syria’s violence, the ‘March 8’ coalition is much more sympathetic to Assad and the ‘March 14’ coalition much less so.
Chatah was certainly among the most vocal opponents of both Assad and of Hezbollah (حزب الله), the Shiite militia and political group that is now openly and notoriously working to support the Alwaite (a Shi’a sect) Assad regime and has ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose leadership is also Shiite. Sunni Salafists from Lebanon are also fighting openly and notoriously on behalf of chiefly Sunni anti-Assad rebels. Just last week, Chatah wrote an open letter to Iran’s new president Hassan Rowhani to help reduce Hezbollah’s role in Syria in the hopes of stabilizing Lebanon. It’s hard not to see Chatah’s death as a direct message from Assad supporters to the ‘March 14’ coalition.
“Those who assassinated Mohammad Shatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri; they are the ones who want to assassinate Lebanon,” the former prime minister said.
“The suspects are those who are running away from international justice and refuse to appear in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; they are the ones opening the window of evil and chaos to Lebanon and the Lebanese and are drawing regional fires,” he added…. “Anger exists and we are heartbroken and we will remain heartbroken. But wisdom is needed so that we can build the Lebanon we dream of,” he added.
Though Lebanon hasn’t descended into outright war, sectarian tensions are rising:
- In May 2012, Lebanese army forces killed the prominent Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahid at a checkpoint in northern Lebanon, provoking protests and further deaths in Tripoli and Beirut.
- In June 2012, at least 15 people were killed in clashes in Tripoli, and renewed fighting between Sunni and Alawites in Tripoli killed another 12 people in August. Tripoli remains one of the most tense flashpoints in the spillover from the Syrian war — another 15 people were killed in November 2012, and 31 were killed in May 2013.
- An October 2012 car bomb in Beirut killed eight people, including major general Wissam Hasan, a top intelligence and security official.
- In June 2013, violent fighting broke out and killed over 50 people in Saida (Sidon), Lebanon’s third-largest city, Hariri’s home city and a Sunni stronghold on the Lebanese coast south of Beirut.
- In July 2013, a car bomb in south Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, injured 53 people, and a Hezbollah convoy was attacked a week later near the Syrian border.
- In August 2013, a double attack on two Sunni mosques in Tripoli killed nearly four dozen, and later that month, a car bomb in a Shiite neighborhood in Beirut killed at least two dozen.
- On November 19, a suicide bombing in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed an additional 23 people.
Lebanese and United Nations officials are still trying to get to the bottom of the Hariri assassination, but it’s widely believed that Syrian forces close to Assad were responsible, and the ensuing uproar led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after nearly 30 years of occupation that began during Lebanon’s own brutal 15 year-long civil war. Hezbollah has denied responsibility for Friday’s blast, but it was an unmistakable warning from pro-Assad forces. It came just three weeks before a special tribunal in The Hague was set to begin the trial of several Hezbollah members in relation to Hariri’s assassination, and Friday’s attack took place in Beirut’s new city center, a neighborhood that Hariri worked to rebuild following Lebanon’s civil war.
Chatah’s assassination came in the backdrop of tense negotiations between the Hezbollah-dominated ‘March 8’ coalition and the Hariri-led ‘March 14’ coalition to form a new government that can thereupon agree on a new election law. Since the previous June 2009 elections, Saad Hariri led a ‘March 14’ government until June 2011, and Najib Mikati led a subsequent ‘March 8’ government until March, when he resigned. Since then, prime minister-designate Tammam Salam, who is close to both camps, has been working to form a government, a difficult task that the Chatah killing will make even harder.
Even when US and other Western governments are backing away from an increasingly fragmented Sunni opposition in Syria, thereby giving Assad a stronger hold on Syria than ever, sectarian tensions loom ominously over its neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq. A wider sectarian conflagration in the Levant from Beirut to Baghdad in 2014 could make the horrors of the Syrian civil war in 2013 seem like a wan prelude to something much worse.