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Shatah killing blow to Sunni moderation, but war unlikely
Forensic experts check the site of explosion in Beirut, Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
Forensic experts check the site of explosion in Beirut, Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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BEIRUT: The assassination of former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah has dealt a heavy blow to moderation within the Sunni community and was aimed at undermining stability and national unity in Lebanon, political analysts said Friday.

However, the analysts agreed that the killing of Shatah, a political adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, would not plunge the country into a full-blown military confrontation or in a new civil war.

“Shatah’s assassination was aimed at striking moderation in Lebanon and undermining the country’s stability and unity,” Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United States, told The Daily Star. “The assassination basically targeted moderation within the Future Movement and all of Lebanon.”

Bou Habib described Shatah as “a moderate person,” saying he had lunch with the victim about a week ago.

“Shatah came to the lunch in a restaurant without any bodyguards. He exhibited great moderation,” said Bou Habib, director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, a Beirut-based think tank. “With Shatah’s assassination, Lebanon has entered a new cycle of violence.”

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, also said that Shatah’s killing was aimed at eliminating moderate Sunnis and radicalizing the community in Lebanon.

“The aim [behind Shatah’s killing] is to eliminate voices of moderation within the Sunni community in Lebanon and increase radicalism among them,” Khashan told The Daily Star.

“Shatah was a very moderate and reasonable politician from Tripoli. The current trend in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is for Sunnis to become extremists. It is not allowed for moderate Sunnis to be present,” he said.

He said Shatah’s assassination would further weaken the Future Movement. “They don’t want to see moderate Sunnis around,” he said, refusing to say whom he meant by “they.”

“What is wanted is for Sunnis to go crazy and join militant Islamic groups to justify the war on terrorism in these countries,” Khashan said.

“Having said that, what is wanted is that Sunnis must be evicted from the political scene in these countries: Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Shatah’s assassination is a link in a chain,” he added.

Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite Saint Joseph, said Shatah’s assassination was designed to send a message to the March 14 coalition and its regional backer, Saudi Arabia, over their support for the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main backer of the Syrian revolution,” Nader told The Daily Star.

Recalling the spate of car bombings that struck Beirut’s southern suburbs, the northern city of Tripoli and last month’s twin suicide blasts that targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, Nader said: “The Lebanese arena has been set on fire as regional parties and intelligence agencies engaged in exchanging bloody messages.”

He said Shatah’s killing was part of the “escalating sectarian war raging in Syria and Iraq.”

“Shatah’s assassination was aimed at killing the logic of moderation, state and partnership,” Nader said.

Nizar Abdel-Qader, a retired Lebanese Army general, said there were at least three political messages behind Shatah’s assassination.

“The first message was directly linked to the Geneva II peace conference [on Syria] which is being prepared to be held under a big slogan of fighting terrorism in the region,” Abdel-Qader told The Daily Star.

Instead of the Geneva conference, scheduled to be held on Jan. 22, concentrating on the freedom of the Syrian people and setting up a democratic government in Syria, he said, the perpetrators of Shatah’s assassination wanted to shift attention of the conference’s sponsors to the issue of terrorism.

“The assassination was designed to show that terrorism was not confined only to Syria, but also to neighboring countries,” Abdel-Qader said.

He added that the other political message was linked to the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 16 the trials of four Hezbollah suspects indicted in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Abdel-Qader said the perpetrators of Shatah’s killing wanted to send a message that they don’t care for the STL’s trials.

Abdel-Qader, a university lecturer, said that the third message was linked to the March 14 coalition’s rejection of a March 8 proposal for a 9-9-6 Cabinet lineup.

“The message behind Shatah’s killing was to tell the March 14 parties that they cannot persist in their rejection of this proposal,” he said.

Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general, also praised Shatah as “a man known for his moderation and competence at the international level.”

“He did not pose any danger to anyone,” Jaber told The Daily Star.

Jaber said Shatah might not have been the real target of the car bomb as he was heading to a March 14 coalition meeting attended by some 50 politicians from this coalition.

“A more important figure in the Future Movement or the March 14 coalition could have been the real target,” said Jaber, director of the Middle East Center for Political Studies and Research, a Beirut-based think tank.

Jaber said Shatah’s assassination was aimed at inciting Sunni-Shiite strife after attempts at igniting sectarian violence had failed following the car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and Tripoli.

Describing Shatah’s killing as “a terrorist act,” Jaber said: “The assassination will deal a blow to the Cabinet formation efforts, but it will not push Lebanon toward a military explosion.”

Both Bou Habib and Khashan concurred that the assassination would not spark a new civil war in Lebanon.

“There is no danger of the country descending into a civil war because no one wants [one],” Bou Habib said.

“Shatah’s killing will further destabilize Lebanon, but it will not lead to a full-blown military explosion in the country,” Khashan said.

Khashan, however, said he expected more bombings in Lebanon.

“As long as the fighting goes on in Syria, Lebanon will be subject to a spillover,” he said.

Like Bou Habib and Jaber, Khashan said he did not see any link between Shatah’s assassination and the STL’s trials of the Hezbollah suspects in Hariri’s assassination.

Carol Maalouf, a political science lecturer at Notre Dame University, said Shatah’s killing was not only a message to the Saudis, the Future Movement and the March 14 coalition, but also to President Michel Sleiman who, she added, was preparing to form a government of technocrats before Jan. 15.

“Shatah was involved in shuttle talks with local and regional parties on a government of technocrats backed by political parties,” Maalouf told The Daily Star.

She blamed Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on the side of Assad’s forces for the cycle of violence that rocked Lebanon in the past few months.

“The cycle of violence began with Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian fighting. The longer it [violence] will drag on, the closer we are to the point of explosion,” Maalouf said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 28, 2013, on page 2.
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