The tragic assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, in Beirut on Monday, February 14, 2005, reverberated across the region, as it evoked vivid memories from Lebanon’s 14-year civil war. In itself, the act is a political earthquake, the fall- out from which will have profound local, regional and international implications. Hariri was not an ordinary Lebanese politician. Inside Lebanon he symbolized a fragile economic recovery reflected in the economic and political rebuilding of a shattered society. Moreover, he was a new breed of Lebanese politician, one who would cast his net fairly wide across a broad political spectrum.
Unlike the days of the civil war, the realignment after Hariri’s death now reflects a novel political divide where the fault lines are no longer religious but national. The opposition to the Lahoud/Karame pro-Syrian government is no longer focused on Maronite centrality; today the Maronite Patriarch Sfeir walks hand in hand with Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, and an undifferentiated slew of Sunni politicians. Druze and Sunnis were of course pillars of the Lebanese Nationalist Movement of the 70s and 80s, which allied itself with the Palestinians against a Syrian/ Maronite thrust united in the need to thwart the emergence of a Lebanese ” communist Cuba” on Syria’s strategic periphery.
At the regional level, Hariri was a major player who enjoyed a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, a working relationship with Syria (despite his resignation over Syrian backing for a renewal of Lahoud’s presidency), and solid contacts with the Palestinians. At the international level, few Arab politicians have acquired his stature among the great power leaders, such as the French President Chirac, Malaysian leader, Mahattir, and even George Bush. To some Lebanese, he was a symbol of globalization, reconstruction and philanthropy; to others, his company Solidere, stood for corruption, a staggering debt, and even forcible eviction. Nevertheless, among the majority of Lebanese, he is seen broadly as a benefactor, and a nation-builder in the political and economic sense.The liquidation of Hariri was thus an act directed against the stability of Lebanon and the new political map that was shaped by his 14 years in power as Prime Minister since 1990.
There is no shortage of potential perpetrators, considering that numerous actors, including Syria, Israel, the United States, Libya and Palestinian militias have all tried their hands at political assassinations in Lebanon through the use of bombing. Although the identity of the assassins may never be known and indeed may prove less important than the consequences, the important questions are, what the crime will lead to in geo-political terms, and who the greatest beneficiaries are? What is the likely impact of this heinous crime on the Lebanese political landscape and the regional map? We might even add the global dimension.
Despite the fact that most fingers are pointed at Syria and the Government of Lebanon, Syria has the most to lose by the revival of sectarian strife. Given the Bush administration’s pressure on Syria, and its declared intent to effect regime change in various Middle Eastern countries, Syria would be shooting itself in the foot by taking any action that invites chaos in Lebanon.
Syria’s presence in Lebanon has become totally unacceptable to the US-President and Congress during the past four years. The Syria Accountability Act of 2003 and Security Council resolution 1559 of October 2004 impose sanctions on Syria and require Syria’s exit from Lebanon. Thus, Syria has been behaving cautiously.
Syria’s situation today is not different from that of Iraq in 2002. Both were accused and/or suspected of supporting terrorism, building weapons of mass destruction, pursuing a policy of strategic deterrence vis-a-vis Israel, and undermining the growing US hegemony in the region. Once the United Nations, under pressure from the US ordered Syria to quit Lebanon, the Iraq scenario came back alive. The only difference is that 1559 was more firm in its demands on Syria than were the resolutions which preceded the unlawful US invasion of Iraq in April 2003. Syria is requested to abandon its armed allies in Lebanon, to accommodate the Sharon agenda of evicting Palestinian organizations, even though they are mere press offices, and withdraw its 14000 troops( already reduced from 40000) inside its own borders. No such expectations are made of Israel even though it sits on top of the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 and has a nuclear capacity without a shred of regional deterrence.
Simply put, Syria has been under the gun since September 11 and all its overtures to curry favor with Washington- be that of delivering suspected al-Qaeda people and cooperating in various ways with the US endeavor in Iraq-have failed to sway Bush’s neo-conservatives from their strategic goal of balkanizing the Arab world in pursuit of a common US/Israeli agenda whose first phase has already been implemented in Iraq. None of Syria’s favors have deterred the ongoing extension of the American empire in the Middle East.
There is an enormous contrast between US policy regarding Syria’s regional role in the mid-seventies and the present. A sea change has occurred during the past three decades. When Syrian forces entered Lebanon to support the right-wing Maronite forces, and to act as arbiter between the warring sectarian groups in 1976, there were blessings from Israel, Washington and certain Arab capitals. King Hussein brokered the deal on behalf of the strange bed fellows in the conviction that Syria’s Arab nationalist credentials would make it a more appropriate “peace keeper” in that area than Israel. Other state actors with a vested interest in regional stability would bestow legitimacy on Syria’s anomalous mission later on by obtaining an Arab cover for its unwritten Israeli/American endorsed project on behalf of a strategic equilibrium.
The US-Israeli sanction of a Syrian role in Lebanon, however, was short-lived.
The grandiose ambitions of Begin and Sharon in the Levant were spelled out in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to achieve three goals: 1) to dislodged Syria’s presence in Lebanon and reduce Syria to manageable proportions. 2) to expel the PLO from Lebanon and thus pre-empt a Palestinian state-in-waiting. 3) to alter the political map of Lebanon in such a manner that Maronite hegemony would be assured at the expense of Sunnis, Shi’a, Druze and the Palestinians. Bashir Jumayyil, leader of the Phalanges was Israel’s chosen president/viceroy, but he was assassinated before taking the oath of office.
When the Lebanese resistance foiled Israel’s plans for the Lebanese political map, and Syria stayed put, US President Reagan sent the marines to replace the Israelis who withdrew to South Lebanon, where they stayed until ejected by Hizbollah in May, 2000. Neither Israel nor the United States had forgotten the humiliation of abrupt withdrawal-The Americans after the disastrous bombing of the US Marine Barracks in 1983; the Israelis after their inability to stand firm in the face of Hizbollah’s sophisticated resistance. Syria’s presence in Lebanon was reaffirmed by the Arab league, and at Taif, where the agreement became a symbol of that presence.
The equation arranged by Washington for Syria and Lebanon in 1976 has been withering away since the 1980s. Hafez Assad’s strategic power play during the 1991 Iraq war may have kept it on resuscitation, but the raison d’etre is no longer there. Hafez Assad is no longer on the scene, and Washington has no more need for Syrian cooperation in the containment of Saddam Hussein, who languishes in a US jail in Iraq.
Moreover, with US Middle East policy now consigned to the likes of David Wurmser, Edward Feit, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and other Sharon operatives in the think tanks, media and the administration, Syria’s regional role will not be seen in the same context employed by Bush I and Baker. It should be recalled that David Wurmser helped draft a document entitled “Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon: the US Role?” in 2000, which called for a confrontation with Syria, which it accused of developing “weapons of mass destruction. According to Charles Glass (“Bashar Assad: The Syrian Sphinx,” Independent, February 19, 2005) “Washington’s neoconservatives were sharpening their knives for Syria long before they assumed office courtesy of George Bush. Many of them have already been advisers to Binyamin Netanyahu during his brief tenure as prime minister of Israel.” Glass adds: “the American advisers, including Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, counseled Israel in 1996 that it can shape its strategic environment… by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria,.an effort that can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
These operative’s push for an invasion of Iraq in 2002/03 is now being renewed against Syria and Iran, while a new formula for a Lebanon minus Hizbullah is being geared up. Such a formula would enable Israel to achieve two of the strategic goals of its 1982 invasion, which had been foiled by the Lebanese resistance. That is why Lebanon without Syrian troops and impotent Hizbullah is now a US and Israeli declared objective. A greatly weakened Syria is crucial as long as both Israel and the US are determined to see a nuclear-free Iran. We are a great distance away from Bush and Baker’s “Dual Containment” of Iran and Iraq. Washington’s various operatives make no secret about the need to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. President Bush himself pledged to back Israel in the event it launched an aerial strike against Iran. Thus a liquidation of Hizbullah is seen as a necessary step for subduing Iran as well as Syria.
Hariri’s death, no matter who arranged it, is the perfect opportunity to implement the Israeli/US strategy, and revisit Israel’s frustrated plans of 1982. What better circumstances could enable Israel to reap the benefits of Hariri’s murder? Unlike 1982, Maronites, Druze, and Sunnis are all lined up against Syria, and once Syria is weakened, they would line up against Hizbullah too.
Not only would this scenario serve the interests of Israel, by helping it achieve unfulfilled aspirations, but it also paves the way for an extension of the American empire without the kind of European opposition encountered in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would be a contiguous American empire stretching between the oil of the Caspian Sea and the bountiful wells of Saudi Arabia.
Thus the tragic death of Rafiq Hariri is inextricably linked to the ongoing remapping which lies at the crossroads after the war in Afghanistan, followed by Sharon’s war on the Palestinians, and the invasion of Iraq. It was like fuel poured on the fire of these conflicts conveniently classified as wars against terror.
Should the grand strategy succeed in the way conceived by the Washington neo-conservatives and Tel Aviv’s Likudists, the old pillars, which kept a semblance of an Arab world going, will have been dealt a severe blow. The formulae affecting Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and the Gulf will have been shattered.
The only salvation for an Arab world on its way to becoming a new Middle East, is to recalculate the real cost of dependency, fragmentation, misuse of strategic resources, and the tenacious clinging to autocracy as they face an onslaught which reminds us of 1258. That, however, is an entirely separate subject, which requires its own examination.
Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His latest book is Dishonest Broker: the US Roles in Israel and Palestine, Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003