Dickey: Syria and the Gemayel Murder

James Bond once had trouble parsing the bad guys from the good guys, which is to say the folks he ought to kill from the folks he ought not. The British secret agent's ruminations came in the very first novel of the series written by Ian Fleming, "Casino Royale," which is out as a new movie, of course, but which I haven't seen. The chapter called "The Nature of Evil" is a killer's contemplation of moral relativism circa 1953.

Bond has been tortured within a millimeter of his manhood by one of the bad guys (the sinister gambler Le Chiffre), only to be saved in extremis by a murderer working for the worse guys (the Soviet government's squad of professional assassins). "When one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong; but as one gets older it becomes more difficult," the convalescing 007 tells a colleague. "At school it's easy to pick out one's own villains and heroes, and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains." But "history is moving pretty quickly these days," he says, "and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts."

The murder in Beirut today of a Lebanese cabinet minister, 34-year-old Pierre Gemayel, suggests just how gray the world of political assassination can become. For a few months now, we've heard from the wise men in Washington and London that the United States should find a way to talk to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; that maybe he can help us out in Iraq; that the grand strategy should be to wean him away from Iran. If not a hero, this erstwhile villain might at least be turned into an ally.

But if you ask anyone on the street in Beirut right now who murdered Gemayel, they're likely to say "Syria"—and not without cause. Assad's feeling cocky. He's heard the talk from Washington and London, too. His allies in Hizbullah are seen as the winners in the war with Israel last summer. And his regime runs like a mafia—all brothers and sisters and cousins—reacting to opposition as a deadly affront and always maneuvering to make sure that past crimes aren't paid for. At least five of Assad's most vocal opponents in Lebanon have been assassinated in the last two years .

Today's killing in Beirut comes just as the United Nations Security Council is moving to establish a special tribunal that will try suspects in the February 14, 2005, truck-bomb murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The Syrians' allies in the Lebanese cabinet, led by Hizbullah, tried to stop the tribunal by bringing down the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora last week. But their resignations fell short of their goal. Now that Gemayel is dead, only one other cabinet member needs to be, shall we say, "persuaded" to pull out, and Siniora's administration is finished. Meanwhile, just to push the point, Hizbullah is threatening to take to the streets. No wonder Saad Hariri, the slain prime minister's son who is now the leader of the parliamentary majority, declared that "the hand of Syria is all over" the latest killing.

But proof? That's another matter. The Syrians deny involvement, and it's no longer clear that Washington really wants to know if they're lying. Reacting to the Gemayel assassinaton today, President George W. Bush said, "We support the Siniora government and its democracy and we support the Lebanese people's desire to live in peace." He added: "We support their efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country." But instead of accusing those countries directly, Bush called more diplomatically for an investigation into "those people and those forces" involved.

Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who ran the first phase of the U.N.-backed investigation into the Hariri murder told me when I saw him a couple of weeks ago he had little doubt of Syrian involvement in the former prime minister's death. Phone records had provided strong evidence pointing to Lebanese intelligence officers and a shadowy Islamist organization with close ties to the Syrians. Some officials in the palace of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud were implicated, and jailed. The Syrian pro-consul in Lebanon, Gen. Rustum Ghazali, was also a suspect. (He denied involvement.) But more high-ranking officials in Damascus were implicated by witnesses who recanted their testimony. "Some of them admitted that they were sent by the Syrian intelligence agency to approach the commission to give wrong information and then discredit the commission," said Mehlis. "And of course you ask yourself why are intelligence agencies doing this?"

Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, who took over the investigation at the beginning of this year, has been moving much more quietly and perhaps more cautiously than Mehlis. Normally attached to the International Criminal Court, Brammertz would seem to be building one of those glacial cases that takes so long to reach a conclusion the suspects die of old age. But Mehlis seems to have little doubt about the general direction of his successor's inquiry.

"How high up in the Syrian government will justice go?" I asked.

"I cannot and will not answer your question, but rather give you an example," said Mehlis. He noted that the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials is now being commemorated: "Never a document was found with the signature of Hitler saying 'I give the order to have six million Jews murdered.' Yet everyone knows that this is what he wanted to happen and that therefore he was responsible for it."

Ultimately, as Mehlis suggests, such trials come down to politics as much as to evidence. Saddam Hussein's case would be one obvious example . His brutality was always apparent, but for decades the West thought he might be useful . And one wonders if Russian President Vladimir Putin will ever be implicated in the murder and poisonings of his opponents, most recently the critically ill defector Alexander Litvinenko. Even if there were evidence, the answer probably is no. Of the many things Europe and the United States want from Putin, punishment for a death here or there is not high on the list.

The great irony is that those behind the crimes actually want to be known as the authors. Terror is part of the plan. And they know that in the great world of global politics, despite the declarations of the Bush administration, evil is not an absolute. History is moving pretty quickly these days, as James Bond once said. The heroes and villains keep changing parts. And that's what gives them their license to kill.