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12/4/2006 Analysis
smithg.jpg (3545 bytes)From Lavon to Pierre Gemayel: Will We Ever Learn?

by Grant F. Smith

It happens more often than it should.  A high caliber pundit self-tasked with critical Middle East analysis on a major news program states opinion as fact.  It happened on the second hour of the nationally broadcast Diane Rhem show on December 1, 2006.  Syndicated columnist Steve Roberts stated that Syria was behind the November 22, 2006 assassination of Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's leader of the reactionary right-wing Kataeb (Phalange) party and industry minister.  While echoing a large number of other pundits blaming Syria over cable and broadcast media, Roberts leveraged the assassination as a reason to disregard any engagement from the forthcoming Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq.

Steve Roberts, Syndicated Columnist:  "The big solution that is supposed to come out of the Baker-Hamilton commission is somehow expanded Middle East discussions, bring in Iran, bring in Syria.  He made the point that Iran has been extremely recalcitrant on its nuclear program.  Syria has been equally recalcitrant if not more so.  They helped assassinate a leading Christian, the evidence is pretty clear, they helped assassinate a leading Christian politician just last week..."

Anonymous assassinations and violence in Lebanon and the rest of the region are rarely as simple as pundits portray.  A series of 1954 bombings against British and American targets in Cairo first ascribed to the Moslem Brothers in Egypt turned out to be a false flag operation authorized by Israeli defense minister Pinhas Lavon.   The Israeli objective was to use terrorist bombings to create an environment in which the British would be tied down and unable to withdraw from Egypt. Few Americans have ever heard of what became known as the 'Lavon affair'.  No wonder.  It has never been the subject of a major film like the "Raid on Entebbe" or "Munich".  The history of false flag operations in the Middle East places a special burden on US commentators not to jump to easy conclusions about any particular act of assassination or terrorism.   Leading Israeli and American commentators, however, were quick to accuse, try and convict Syria of the Gemayel assassination in the court of public opinion.  My email to the Diane Rehm show provoked a full public display of the lack of substance in the "get Syria" camp.

Diane Rehm, host:  "And here's an email from Grant (Smith, director of research at IRmep) who says "your guest stated that Syria was involved in the assassination of a 'Christian Politician'.  There is no hard evidence of that.  Is it the Israeli propaganda hour now?""

Steve Roberts, Syndicated Columnist:  "That's a very unfair comment, the "Israeli propaganda hour."  If anybody in this government doubts, or any thinking person doubts that Syria was involved in the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, I'd like to know that..."

Diane Rehm, host:  "I wonder if we do have any proof?"

Steve Roberts, Syndicated Columnist: "I didn't say there was proof.  But there is an international investigation going on into the assassination of Rafic Hariri, and other politicians.  Syria has done everything to try to block that investigation.  Every bit of evidence we have, in the long history here, is of a violent intervention in Lebanon, and I don't know anybody who knows anything about that region, who doubts that Syria is involved in that assassination.   It has nothing to do with Israeli propaganda." (Audio Clip MP3)

Steve Roberts appears regularly as a pundit on ABC Radio, Washington Week in Review, CNN, Hardball with Chris Matthews and is a regular commentator on NPR.  As a "go along get along" analyst, Roberts rarely challenges conventional wisdom or presents a unique viewpoint from any of his mainstream perches.   In general, he replicates many US commentators' "Israel good, Arabs bad" policy preconceptions when discussing regional developments.  Steve Robert's stew of "common knowledge", logical fallacies, subtle threats and selective history to defend his unfounded assertions about Syria are representative of many other pundits' syndicated analysis of this latest tragedy in the Middle East. 

Roberts asserts that the initial findings of another assassination, that of Rafic Hariri in 2005, are somehow immediately applicable to Gemayel.   In terms of Lebanese and regional politics, Hariri's earth shattering demise happened in an entirely separate geological age, under tectonic dynamics with few overlapping edges.  Any conclusions about the Gemayel assassination should be drawn from a thorough, separate investigation.  Syria's cooperation or non-cooperation in the Hariri case has little bearing on the Gemayel assassination.  Although Syria has redoubled efforts to gain favor with the US and reestablish relations with Lebanon, Iraq and even Israel, it may not be able to produce a Hariri assassin.  Syria may be in the exact quandary as Saddaam Hussein when he was unable to produce weapons of mass destruction before the US invasion.

Roberts cites a "violent intervention in Lebanon" by Syria which is a historically highly selective snapshot.  Syria originally entered Lebanon at the invitation of the Lebanese government during its civil war.  When Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon in 1982, an action that ultimately cost 17,825 Arab lives, Syria was a major force in helping Lebanon ultimately expel the uninvited occupiers in 1985.  And of course the most violent recent intervention in Lebanon was not by Syria, but rather Israel's campaign of collective punishment earlier this year.

Roberts questions the intelligence of any regional analyst who doesn't immediately agree that Syria was Gemayel's assassin.  This has been a popular neoconservative and Israeli Likud "appeal to authority" argument making its way through the mainstream media over the past few weeks.  It often, as in the case of Roberts, comes with a veiled threat.  "If anybody in this government doubts, or any thinking person doubts that Syria was involved in the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, I'd like to know that," squeaked Roberts, prompting one to wonder.  If an independent analysis by a senator or congressperson, or administration official points to another country, would Roberts put them on some kind of list?   Would AIPAC or other tentacles of the Israel lobby then engage in force?  Why is being "on message" about Syria's culpability more important than hard data?   One reason.   Because a rational assessment of the motives for assassination reveals that the primary beneficiary is Israel, not Syria.

The very day Gemayel was assassinated, Syria had achieved a major diplomatic goal, the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Iraq.   Neoconservative and Likudnik Israeli politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu have long schemed to isolate Syria from Iraq through military intervention, while "weaning" Lebanon from Syria and Iran (see the 1996 neoconservative "Clean Break" plan).  However, a new threat challenging neoconservative and Likudnik isolation doctrine has recently emerged.  The Iraq Study Group led by James Baker is known to be advocating greater diplomatic engagement, with both Syria and Iran, as a way to avert broader civil war in Iraq and lay the ground for significant US troop withdrawals.  Syria has dedicated years of efforts toward engaging with Washington after being declared a hub of the "Axis of Evil" and object of a congressionally mandated "Accountability Act" restricting trade and diplomatic relations.  Why would Syria scuttle these lifeblood, survival level diplomatic relations in the name of knocking off a bothersome politician in Lebanon while still under suspicion for the Hariri killing?  The answer is that it probably didn't.

There is only one clear regional beneficiary if Gemayel's assassination preemptively discredits the Iraq Study Group engagement plan.  There is only one clear beneficiary to keeping Syria isolated and back on the list of US diplomatic "untouchables".  There is only one country in the region interested in thwarting any American rapprochement with Iran in favor of US aerial bombing.  There is only one country interested in prolonging the ill-conceived US occupation of Iraq. This country also has the only regional intelligence and covert operations service with the motto "By way of deception, thou shalt do war." Until hard evidence emerges, motives point to Israel as a more likely assassin than Syria.  However, non-politicized efforts must be made to unearth and expose the true culprit, whoever that may be.

Fortunately, the American people are now insisting on facts and are no longer accepting commentary from intellectual lightweights and neoconservative pundits as a sound basis for US regional policy.  After the Iraq fiasco, they do not automatically assume Middle East punditry is truthful or necessarily in the American interest.  The Bush administration, which must have its own internal doubts about the perpetrator of the Gemayel assassination should review unbiased assessments from the CIA.   In the past the CIA has warned about Israel's capabilities and willingness to unleash false flag operations to secure its perceived interests.  Clearly, the CIA's motto of “and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" is a proper model for non-politicized intelligence and investigations that would truly serve the American people at this critical juncture.  In the mean time, responsible pundits would do well to expand the list of suspects until hard data comes in.


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