TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Litvinenko and Gemayel: Assassinations and “Realism”

The assassinations of Pierre Gemayel, the Lebanese Minister of Industry, and Alexander Litvinenko, the former Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian secret police who had found refuge in the West, nearly coincided. Gemayel was gunned down in Beirut on November 21, and Litvinenko succumbed to poisoning by the rare radioactive material polonium on November 23 in a London hospital. Syria and its agents are the primary suspects for the former: killing Gemayel was an obvious attempt to block the investigation into the earlier assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, while also bringing Lebanon one step further toward a recolonization in which Hezbollah would play the role previously reserved for the Syrian army. Meanwhile, there is hardly any doubt that the Kremlin ordered the Litvinenko murder: Litvinenko had become an outspoken critic of the Putin regime. In particular he had accused the Russian government of carrying out the apartment house bombings in Moscow in 1999, which served as a pretext for the war in Chechnya.

What links the two events? We know that Russia had been dragging its feet in the United Nations on the Hariri tribunal and would have preferred to stop it there. In fact, that process is by no means over, and there will still be plenty of opportunity for Kremlin mischief to protect the culprits in Damascus who ordered the killings in Beirut—unless of course Hezbollah finishes that job first and stops the investigation on its own.

Or the investigation may end up as a bargaining chip in the prospects for the “realists,” who still have some wind in their sails from the US elections. This scenario depends on the dubious hypothesis that by “talking” with Syria and giving Assad something—a pass on Hariri—Syria will somehow play a role in “solving” Iraq.

This is why the call in the New York Times, for all of its realism, is deeply unrealistic:

This page believes that the United States needs to begin a dialogue with Syria, about Iraq and regional peace. But President Bashar al-Assad needs to understand that neither the tribunal nor Lebanon’s independence will ever be on the bargaining table. Europe, Russia and all of Syria’s neighbors need to join Washington in delivering that message.

The sentiments are great, and we may still be lead down the road to Damascus, but the price will be democracy in Lebanon, and the Hariri tribunal.

Moreover, the expectation is extraordinarily naïve that Russia will protect the legitimacy of an investigation into a political assassination in Beirut at the same time that it is engaged in similar political assassinations in London. The “realists” at the NYT, driven by a fundamentalist fervor to distinguish themselves from the democratizing agenda of the administration, repeatedly refuse to acknowledge the violence current in an embattled world. Instead they make a mantra of “multilateralism,” which means making foreign policy contingent on the Security Council vetoes of a Russia that kills its critics.

But the lessons of this past week of the double murders are more profound and more urgent than this critique of the obvious illusions of realism. The murders tell us about the reality of political struggle today and the nature of the enemies. The political cultures that assassinated Gemayel and Litvinenko are cut from the same cloth; their actions are reminiscent of the practices of the totalitarian world of the Cold War, stripped of its old Marxist ideology but thoroughly loyal to the core legacy of illiberalism. Both killings were attacks on democracy and the rule of law (which is why so much in Beirut revolves around the future of the tribunal). The contempt for the lives of their political opponents is a good clue to the sort of society the culprits would like to institute.

Only the technology differs. Syrian proxies ambushed Gemayel in a Christian neighborhood, sending the message that they are prepared to risk a new civil war. Their goal was also terroristic intimidation. The Kremlin, in contrast, is beyond that blatant populism, working instead with the greater subtlety of espionage. But one element was not subtle at all and doubtlessly calculated to create headlines: the use of radioactivity to carry out a murder in the heart of a western metropolis. The Litvinenko killing was the first dirty bomb.

Some useful context: the history of assassinations in Beirut and the poisonous legacy of the KGB:

From the Daily Star in Beirut, of November 21:

Here is a chronology of political killings and attacks since Rafik al-Hariri’s death in February 2005.

Feb. 14 – Former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 22 others are killed by truck bomb in Beirut. Top aide former economy minister and legislator Basil Fuleihan badly burnt in attack and dies in hospital two months later.

June 2 – Samir Kassir, journalist opposed to Syria’s role in Lebanon, is killed in Beirut by bomb in his car.

June 21 – Former Communist Party leader and critic of Syria George Hawi is killed in Beirut by bomb in his car.

July 12 – Car bomb wounds caretaker Defense Minister Elias al-Murr and kills one person in Christian area north of Beirut.

Sept. 25 – May Chidiac, a Christian television journalist critical of Syria, is seriously wounded by bomb in her car.

Dec. 12 – Gebran Tueni, staunchly anti-Syrian member of parliament and Lebanese newspaper magnate is killed by a car bomb in Beirut. An unknown group, “Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom of the Levant,” claims responsibility.

Feb. 14, 2006 – At least half a million Lebanese pack central Beirut, a year after the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Nov. 21 – Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel is killed by gunmen as his convoy drives through the Christian Sin el-Fil neighborhood of Beirut.

From an article of November 25, signed by Marie Jégo, Moscow correspondent for Le Monde, entitled “The Poisons of the Kremlin”:

Coming down with a viral infection in early November, Colonel Litvinenko, 43, was hospitalized seven days later, because his condition continued to worsen. He lost his hair, his liver and bone marrow cease functioning, and he can no longer digest food. Within two weeks, the metabolism of this boyish-looking man, previously in perfect health, undergoes an extraordinary decline.

Scotland Yard, whose antiterrorist section has been charged with the investigation, spoke of an ‘apparently deliberate poisoning’ on November 20. [ . . . ]

Produced in very small quantities (allegedly about 100 grams per year), polonium 201 is not available on the open market. The choice of this material indicates that the perpetrators of the assassination are not amateurs. “These people had plenty of resources,” explained Dr. Andrea Sella, Professor of Chemistry at the University College of London, speaking to Reuters.

Terrorism has gone nuclear. And the trail leads back to Cold War practices. Le Monde continues:

“The FSB (Russian Secret Police) hates traitors,” [ . . . ] insists General Oleg Kaluginin, who has found asylum in the US. He knows what he’s talking about. Head of Russian counter-espionage in the 1970s, he provided the Bulgarian Special Services with the poison (ricin) which caused the death of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978.

A ferocious opponents of Todor Zhukov, the Bulgarian Communist leader, Markov, who had fled to London where he worked for the BBC, did not moderate his criticisms of the regime. One October day in 1978, on his way to work, he was bumped by a pedestrian who stuck the tip of an umbrella in his leg. He died a few days later. [ . . . ]

Curare, ricin, strychnine—from Lenin to Brezhnev various poisons have been used by the soviet secret services, which never hesitated to persecute “traitors,” dissidents and “enemies of the people” on the territory of the USSR and abroad. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the KGB laboratory for toxicology Nr. 12 seemed to fall into forgetfulness. This however was not the case. In his book published in 2002, after arriving in Britain, Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within (with Yuri Felshtinsky), Litvinenko asserts that the FSB, successor to the KGB, has reactivated its “laboratory of poisons.”

The death on March 19, 2002, in the mountains of Chechnya, of the Jordanian Islamist Khttab, a jihadi companion of the Chechen terrorist Khamil Basseav, proves him right. The Jordanian “Emir” received a poisoned letter. The Minister of Defense celebrated the “liquidation”; the FSB referred to a “special operation,” without elaborating on the means, due to the need for secrecy. [ . . . ]

The article goes on to discuss Litvinenko’s allegations about the role of the FSB in the Moscow apartment house bombings as well as the fate of Juri Chekochikin, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta and a deputy to the Duma, involved in the investigation of the bombings. On June 16, 2003, at the Duma, he complained of headaches; a week later he was hospitalized. Le Monde writes:

Loss of hair, premature ageing, loss of white blood cells, cardiac problems: according to the description given by his relatives, his condition was very similar to Litvinenko’s. He died on July 3.

(The medical records are secret, and no investigation has been undertaken.)

Le Monde concludes:

There seems to be a veritable curse pursuing anyone interested in the assassinations of 1999 [the more than 300 dead in the bombings]. A few months before Juri Checkochikin, his colleague, the liberal deputy Sergei Juchenkov, 52, a member of the same Duma investigatory committee, was shot and killed in front of his Moscow how.

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