A stick to beat Syria with

Published : Mar 11, 2005 00:00 IST

Rafik Hariri (left) in the Lebanese Parliament moments before he was assassinated. - HASAN IBRAHIM/AFP

Rafik Hariri (left) in the Lebanese Parliament moments before he was assassinated. - HASAN IBRAHIM/AFP

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri gives the U.S., France and Israel a pretext to renew their arm-twisting of Syria.

THE assassination of Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, in Beirut on February 14 now threatens to trigger further turmoil in the region. Without waiting for the result of an inquiry instituted into the car-bomb attack, Washington has placed the onus of the crime on Syria. Not surprisingly, Israel too has joined in the finger-wagging exercise. The demands for the withdrawal of the 14,000-strong Syrian peacekeeping force stationed in Lebanon are also getting louder in Lebanon.

Syrian Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, however, accused Israel of being behind the killing. Khaddam was a close friend of Hariri and was present at his funeral. Syrian President Bashar Assad described the bombing as "a horrendous criminal attack" and called on the people of Lebanon to "fortify their unity and to reject those seeking discord".

The assassination of Hariri, who owed his meteoric rise in politics to a large extent to Syrian patronage, has come at an inopportune time for Syria and the region. In January, United States President George W. Bush, in his annual State of the Union Address, again singled out Syria for reprimand. Before he ends his term, Bush would like to see a regime change in Syria. Changing the political map of West Asia has been a long-cherished dream of the influential "neo-conservatives" in the U.S. government. The recent events in Lebanon have no doubt encouraged them.

Although U.S. officials have not openly accused the Assad regime of involvement in the killing, Bush, talking to the media in Washington after the assassination, said that Syria "was out of step" with the rest of West Asia. He demanded that Syria hold "fair and free" elections by May this year. He even accused the Syrian government of supporting "terrorist" groups such as Hamas and the Hezbollah. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in the third week of February that the U.S. government had the diplomatic means to ensure that the Syrian troops get out of Lebanon. In May 2004, the Bush administration banned virtually all exports to Syria. After Hariri's assassination, the administration was quick to withdraw its Ambassador to Damascus.

A few days after the emotional funeral accorded to Hariri, the Lebanese Opposition for the first time gave a call for an intifada (uprising) against the democratically elected government. Prime Minister Umar Karami has termed the Opposition demand as an attempted "coup against the state". According to analysts, the sectarian faults in the Opposition have disappeared and the groups are now united in their opposition to the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory. Analysts feel that the assassination has given them the political momentum. Lebanese politicians opposed to Damascus have now accorded the former Prime Minister the status of a "martyr".

An organisation calling itself the "Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant" had initially claimed responsibility for the assassination. Available evidence indicates that a suicide bomber was responsible for the massive explosion. Al Qaeda, in a posting on an Islamic web site, has disclaimed any involvement in the assassination and has instead accused state agencies for the act. "This is clearly an operation that was planned by a state agency - and we blame either the Mossad, the Syrian regime or the Lebanese regime," the message said.

Hariri's close associate, Mustafa Al Naser, told the media that he believed that the Mossad was behind the incident. He said the aim was "to create political tension in Lebanon". A paper published in 1996 by Tel Aviv's Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" states: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, constraining and even rolling back Syria." The authors of the paper were prominent neo-conservatives who are currently in the Bush administration, like Richard Perle and Douglas Feith.

Many Israeli analysts are also not buying the hypothesis that Syria is behind the assassination. "It is totally illogical that Syria would do it. It would be such a stupid move on their part. Everyone is watching them and they don't want to destabilise Lebanon," said Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at the Dayan Institute of Middle East Studies in Tel Aviv in an interview to Jerusalem Post.

The Israeli government had tried to convert Lebanon into a "vassal" state in the late 1970s and the 1980s. The present Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was in the forefront of that effort. Some Lebanese politicians, who are now in the Opposition and are calling for Syrian withdrawal, were once aligned with the Israeli occupation force commanded by Gen. Ariel Sharon. The Israeli force that invaded Lebanon in the late 1970s accentuated the civil war. Many of the political parties, especially the Maronite (Christian) ones, were subsidised by Israel and the West. It was the intervention of Syria in 1976, at the behest of all the mainstream parties, that ultimately led to the end of civil and sectarian strife in Lebanon.

The presence of Syrian troops in the country deterred the Israelis from further military adventurism in Lebanon. Also playing an important supporting role is the Hezbollah. This party mainly represents the underprivileged Shia community in Lebanon. The Hezbollah militia had scored significant successes in southern Lebanon, the most notable one being the expulsion of the Israeli armed forces from southern Lebanon.

The U.S. has been trying its best to get the Hezbollah declared a terrorist organisation. The Bush administration is trying to use the assassination of Hariri to get key European Union countries on its side in its efforts to quarantine the Hezbollah. If the Syrian army is withdrawn from Lebanon, Israel will once again start targeting the Hezbollah, which is the only fighting force capable of facing the might of the Israeli Army, as events since the 1980s have shown. Some Lebanese politicians have warned that the assassination of Hariri is being exploited for partisan gains and to internationalise an internal problem under the guise of United Nations resolutions.

Hariri, who had chosen not to give up his Saudi Arabian citizenship, had in recent months started to distance himself publicly from Damascus. The former Prime Minister was a close friend of the Saudi King and had made his millions as a businessman in the kingdom. He is reputed to have dipped into his own sizable bank balance to kickstart the reconstruction of war-ravaged Beirut. It was also whispered that his family ended up owning considerable real estate in the Lebanese capital. The open break with Damascus came in September last, when Hariri resigned as Prime Minister to protest against the constitutional amendment which gave the current President three more years in office.

Hariri had apparently used his close friendship with French President Jacques Chirac to get U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 passed in September last year. The passage of the resolution emboldened the Opposition to close ranks and call for the eviction of Syrian forces. The U.S. and the French jointly sponsored the resolution, which calls for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

It was observed in some quarters that Hariri's new independent streak started showing only after the U.S. occupied Iraq. Before that, he used to bend over backwards to accommodate Syrian interests. He never questioned the "special relationship" between the two countries.

After the Hariri assassination, the U.N. has again demanded that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The pressure is being piled on a daily basis on Damascus by Washington, which is acting in tandem with Paris after a long break. Syria has reacted by announcing a joint front with Iran to face the new "challenges and threats". Syrian Prime Minister Naji Al Otari was in Teheran a few days after the Hariri assassination, a visit planned months before the unfortunate event. The two sides reaffirmed their close ties.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani speaking to the media after a meeting with the Syrian Prime Minister, said that there was an urgent need to strengthen the relations between Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries in the region. Rafsanjani is widely tipped to be the President of his country once again. Presidential elections are to be held in Iran in June.

Another bit of encouraging news for the beleaguered government in Syria is the reiteration by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow will go ahead with its proposed deal to sell anti-aircraft missile defence systems to the country.

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