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'Snake Eat Snake' | The Nation

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'Snake Eat Snake'

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It is more or less this trajectory that Cobra describes in the first two-thirds of his book. Virtually from the beginning, Cobra became part of Hobeika's inner circle, ironically after the two nearly came to blows in their first encounter. Hobeika's rise, Cobra insists, came with a considerable price in blood. Such an observation can be expected from an embittered former employee, but it raises another question: How much should one believe in a book replete with startling revelations that are difficult to verify?

About the Author

Walid Harb
Walid Harb is the pseudonym of a writer living in Lebanon.

The answer is that it is best to tread carefully. One is willing to accept, with little difficulty, the worst about Hobeika. However, it is reasonable to assume that since Cobra has an ax to grind, his revelations are designed as much to destroy Hobeika's political career as to inform.

There are, generally speaking, two types of situations in From Israel to Damascus: Those in which Cobra participated personally and those for which, because he was not directly involved, he can only offer interpretations. When Cobra speaks firsthand, his book is persuasive. When he speculates, however, he reveals the insularity of the professional henchman overshadowed by a leader who largely avoided sharing information with the help.

Cobra and his handlers appear to have assumed, correctly, that sex would disseminate their opus far more efficiently than politics. Much of the local curiosity about the book was generated by two chapters describing Hobeika's sexual capers and naming most of his paramours. The list is jubilantly long and includes a large number of women who pass for being members of the postwar plutocracy. Several marriages have reportedly suffered as a result.

It is the politics, however--or at least that version practiced by Hobeika and Hatem--that makes the book notable. The most significant of Cobra's allegations is that Hobeika was, as early as 1981, a Syrian double agent. At the time, Bashir Gemayel was engaged in a fierce struggle for power with the Syrians. This would lead to a direct confrontation between Syria and Israel in the Bekaa Valley, when Israeli aircraft shot down a Syrian helicopter engaged in a military operation against Christian militiamen. The Syrians responded by moving SAM missile batteries into Lebanon, alarming the Reagan Administration into sending Philip Habib to negotiate a settlement. This he did, although it was clear by then that Gemayel was dead set on using the Israelis against the Syrians.

If Cobra is to be believed, Hobeika was ecumenical in his contacts. Even as he maintained close ties with the Israelis, he opened a line of communication to Rifaat and Jamil al-Assad, the brothers of the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad. Cobra describes, firsthand, a visit by Hobeika to Damascus in late 1981 and another to Paris a month later to meet with the two men. The junket ended, memorably, with a soiree at the Raspoutine nightclub on the Champs-Elysées, where Cobra spent a pleasant evening conversing with Hobeika's then-mistress.

The contacts were significant for reasons that will become obvious. However, again one must ask, are the allegations true? And do they matter? In the mendacious world of Lebanese militia politics, Hobeika's conduct proves nothing: Dealing with one's enemies was common, even sensible. Moreover, it is unlikely that Gemayel or the Israelis would have been unaware of Hobeika's excursions. The US journalist Barbara Newman, with whom Gemayel had a fling, writes in her book The Covenant that he knew of Hobeika's Syrian connection. Gemayel probably assumed that at some stage it could come in handy. He probably also guessed that Hobeika was too much the pragmatist to become dependent on such an unnatural relationship.

For Cobra, however, Hobeika's relationship with Syria implies that he must have been indirectly involved in Gemayel's assassination in September 1982. It is generally accepted that the bomb attack that killed the president-elect was carried out by one Habib Shartouni. However, it was planned by an official in a pro-Syrian organization to which Shartouni belonged, and who, once the war ended, would sit across the table from Hobeika in the government.

But was Hobeika involved? Given his subsequent history one might like to believe so, but the evidence presented is circumstantial. One suspects that the suggestion may simply be one of Cobra's deadlier poisons: an effort to link Hobeika to the death of an elected president and hero to many Christians--the very same Christians, incidentally, whom Hobeika must seduce to become politically consequential nationally. But Cobra goes further: The massacres in Sabra and Shatila, he insists, were provoked by Hobeika to conceal his involvement in Gemayel's assassination a few days before. In other words, Hobeika set upon the camps to deflect attention from the breaches in Gemayel's security. The theory is interesting but speculative. It is undermined by Cobra's impertinent claim that the Israeli defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was aghast at the carnage in the camps. If so, one wonders, why did he allow it to go on for two full days while insuring that at night Hobeika's men would have light from Israeli-fired flares?

A more plausible hypothesis is that the ambitious Hobeika saw that the massacres would meet Israeli objectives and conceal his failure to protect Gemayel. The same can be said for a related incident Cobra describes to prove his point: Hobeika allegedly ordered the killing of Habib Shartouni's family and then had the killer killed. Indeed, the latter chore was initially assigned to Cobra, but he avoided it because the man in question was a friend. The implication is that Hobeika was covering his tracks. Yet it is equally possible that Hobeika, though innocent, was so covetous of power that he refused to let a momentary lapse prevent his rise to a position of authority in the Christian community, particularly once the stage had been vacated of the hefty presence of Gemayel.

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