By Nicholas Blanford
The Daily Star
MAARAB, Lebanon: The Christians of the Middle East should not view with trepidation the turmoil engulfing the region over the past 18 months, Syria especially, but should instead seize the initiative to advance change and ensure communal survival, says Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
“We should spearhead any quantum leap in the region, otherwise we will lose our role and if we lose our role we will lose our presence,” Geagea told The Daily Star in an interview. “We cannot as Christians keep our presence in this area by supplicating Hezbollah to give us a few parliamentary seats [or] by asking anybody else. We can keep our presence in the Middle East by playing a full-fledged role … We should have a clear understanding, especially with something historic like the Arab Spring … otherwise we will be [destined for] oblivion in a few decades if not in a few years.”
Geagea’s assertive stance toward the Arab Spring, combined with the good relations he has cultivated and maintains with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the so-called “moderate Arab” countries in the region (he recently traveled to Riyadh to meet with Saudi King Abdullah), serves as a deliberate counterpoint to the political position of his arch Christian rival Michel Aoun.
Aoun has always been closer to Hezbollah and harbors suspicions and antipathy toward the Hariris, while standing by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Syrian Christians in general have been slow to embrace the revolt against Assad’s regime, mainly due to fears for what might come next. The experiences of Christians in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have thrown those concerns into stark relief. But Geagea adopts the view that the downfall of the Assad regime cannot be anything but beneficial for the Christians of Syria and Lebanon.
“It will have an outcome in the direction of democracy and freedom … it can be a full-fledged real democracy and freedom or it could be partial, but [it will go] in this direction for sure,” he said. “So all in all it is beneficial for Christians in Syria to side with [the revolution].”
As for the fear of fundamentalist groups taking over in Syria and minorities being persecuted, Geagea said that was no excuse for continuing to side with the Assad regime. The identity of a future Syrian regime, whether Islamist or secular, is unimportant, he said, what matters is the performance of the regime.
“If it is a Christian or Druze regime and it is a killer regime, do we support it only because it is a Christian or a Druze regime or a minorities regime? This is not the [correct] criteria. The [correct] criteria is the substance [policies] of the regime.”
With Geagea and Aoun representing the bulk of Lebanon’s Christian electorate, the competition between these two old foes is expected to be fierce during next year’s parliamentary elections. Geagea appeared confident he could make some inroads into Aoun’s support base, snapping up those members of the Free Patriotic Movement who, according to the Lebanese Forces leader, have grown disillusioned with the performance of Aounist ministers in the government.
“It’s not to do with politics but the lack of good governance, the lack of good performance, corruption. Aoun fought under the banner of fighting corruption, then it appears that his ministers were the most corrupt maybe in the history of the republic … People are much more concerned with these issues than the strategic issues,” he said.
But that surely does not mean that a disaffected Aounist would choose to vote for the Lebanese Forces in 2013, especially given the traditional hostility between the two parties.
“The Lebanese Forces has offered a very acceptable alternative in terms of its political program and in terms of its political behavior, its parliamentary behavior … There is zero smoke of corruption around the Lebanese Forces, I mean zero. So yes, I dare say that the necessary elements are now in place for the Lebanese Forces to be the next choice for all those who quit either Aoun or all other parties.”
Since the uprising began in Syria in March 2011, there has been near constant speculation that the violence could spill across the border into Lebanon. So far, beyond some shootings across the Lebanon-Syria border, a few flare-ups between the traditionally volatile Sunni and Alawite communities in Tripoli, a couple of Katyusha rocket launches into Israel and three bomb attacks against UNIFIL in the south, the country has remained relatively quiet. Geagea believes that the calm should continue simply because a descent into factional violence serves the interests of no one.
“Who would benefit?” he asked. “If the Sunnis come and fight Hezbollah, does that help the revolution in Syria? If Hezbollah fights the Sunnis, does that help the [Assad] regime? No.”
However, for Geagea, his narrow escape from an assassin’s bullet – actually three bullets – last month served as a grim reminder of how easy it would be to destabilize the country through a strategic killing.
Asked what motive someone might have for killing him, he said: “For sure, one of the reasons is the impact on the Christian arena in Lebanon. The Christian arena without Geagea would fall completely to March 8.”
Furthermore, there are relatively few strategic March 14 targets these days, with Hariri having lived abroad for the past year and Walid Jumblatt steering a course between the two camps.
Geagea said he recalled hearing two shots fired in quick succession as he was strolling in his garden. “I heard two but apparently there were three fired very fast at the same fraction of a second,” he said, speculating that the assassination attempt must have involved three individual snipers firing at the same time. He threw himself to the ground “instinctively” and crawled to cover before even realizing that he was being shot at.
Forensic investigators extracted three 12.7mm rounds from the wall – two were at head height and one at belly height – having missed the Lebanese Forces leader by about 20 centimeters. The garden remains closed off for now under orders of the Lebanese judiciary. But the source of fire was pinpointed to a steep conical hill some 900 meters from Geagea’s residence and just about the only location with an overview of the garden.
Geagea said he had not been informed of the results of the investigation, but added that he had confidence in the goodwill of the heads of the various security departments involved in the case.
“But practically this should lead to discover who was behind the operation, otherwise it will stay at the stage of goodwill,” he said.
Geagea would not be drawn on declaring outright whom he believed was behind the shooting, although his comments needed little interpretation.
“It was for political reasons for sure. So who are the party or parties who are well qualified for such an operation and at the same time benefit? I have my own analysis but I will not declare it because it is just a guess … [but my view is based on] analyzing who profits from this crime, analyzing the quality of this operation, the logistics necessary to make it happen … Who has the ability to come in with three big rifles and to wait. From 2005, I have been on my guard because of the nature of the political work in Lebanon. But they discovered a [breach in my security] after many months if not years of long-distance observation.”
Geagea said he could not predict whether the attempt on his life signaled a new wave of assassinations, but he said he would not give them a second chance.
“I will not leave a [breach] open this time.”