Indulging in speculation regarding the identity of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s real assassins is of little value now. What demands urgent scrutiny is how his murder was intended to play a large part in the remolding of Lebanon’s role in the overall Arab-Israeli conflict and the balances of power in the region.
So while the February 14 blast was reported in Beirut, its tremors were felt in Damascus.
The tide is turning against Syria and it is turning fast. Both Israel and the United States are up in arms to bring an end to Syria’s hegemony over Lebanese affairs. But one must not be too hasty to believe that the American-Israeli action is motivated by their earnest concern for Lebanese sovereignty. Look a few miles to the East, to Iraq, and be affirmed that meaningful national sovereignty is the least of Washington’s concerns at this point. Skip through the brief, albeit bloody history that adjoined Israel and Lebanon, and reach the same conclusion: Lebanon’s sovereignty is nowhere to be found on Israel’s list of things to do. In fact, Israel’s violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty continue unabated.
However, Syria must be ousted from Lebanon because, first, its presence there is beefing up Syria’s standing as a regional power capable of dictating the terms of future agreements between itself and Israel on one hand, and Lebanon and Israel on the other. Without a doubt, it is unethical that Lebanon does not hold the keys to its own future, but its not Lebanon’s compromised position that worries Israel.
Despite its military primacy, Israel is still a very small country. It is incapable of dealing with a cluster of other countries all at once. Imagine how much more arduous Israel’s task would be if late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to sign a separate peace deal with Israel, joined by Jordan, Syria and the others. Or how much tougher it would’ve become if Egypt linked any normalization with Israel to a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, in accordance with international law.
Israel is undoubtedly not fond of the one-shot-deal style of negotiations, and understandably so. For one, it has greater leverage – politically, economically and militarily – than any of its Arab neighbors standing alone. And of course, Israel itself is never alone, in spite of the popular victim-myth it constantly proliferates. It has always been backed, cheered on and defended by successive US administrations who have willingly – and to the bewilderment of many – valued Israel’s political designs and territorial ambitions over its own national security.
The mission therefore, has always been to separate individual Arab countries from the pact, to pressure, to allure or to beat senseless (like in the cases of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian leadership respectively) until a peace deal, according to Israeli terms, is finally reached.
But Syria and Lebanon have thus far maintained a different dynamic in their dealings with Israel.
To begin with, Lebanese resistance demonstrated that Israel could only honor international law if it is forced to do so. The partial Israeli implementation of UN resolution 425 and its forced withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 was evidence of that claim.
To Israel, that was a very dangerous and alarming precedent. Almost immediately after its withdrawal, I wrote an article, predicting a Palestinian uprising that would capitalize on the vigor and dynamism Palestinians extracted from the Lebanese victory. The Intifada actualized shortly after and its high-flying banners at the time were predominantly Hezbollah slogans. Connect the dots.
Israel left Lebanon with undeniable humiliation. A major source of embarrassment, aside from the military defeat, was leaving Lebanon an empty stage to political reconfiguration that was not of Israel’s creation. (Recall the phony elections Israel held after it occupied most of Lebanon in 1982 and the installing of the ‘elected’ Phalangist leader Bashir Jumail who was later assassinated. Jumail was given the task of ruling over a proxy country to be run from Tel Aviv.)
But what’s in it for the United States? The Bush administration has no business in Lebanon whatsoever. There are no natural resources to exploit, no empire ‘domains’ to be protected and no mock battles against terrorism to be fought. Lebanon has been a stable country (despite all the political and sectarian skirmishes), which enjoyed a commendable democratic experience and by far the freest press in the Arab world.
However, thanks to the pro-Israeli neoconservative elements in Washington, the Bush administration is working with the false assumption that Syria is the source of regional tension and must be ‘stabilized’ or taken out.
The neoconservatives found many willing allies among Lebanese dissidents who agreed to play along (a replication of the Iraqi opposition’s role in Washington prior to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government) who want to see an end to Syria’s role in Lebanon. Together they helped forge the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003. Also with the help of those allies, Washington has been sending all kinds of signals, warning that Iraq’s fate could very well be re-visited in Syria.
But there is a dichotomy here. While there is a great deal of interest to see Syria and Lebanon subdued to talk peace according to Israeli terms, and an active crowd in Washington which is orchestrating and manipulating US support, there is neither enough funds nor troops (nor popular support, even though that is more manageable) to carry out a conventional military undertaking in Damascus.
And as past American interventions, mainly in Central America, have taught us, when direct military involvement cannot be sold to the public or cannot be sustained politically or financially, it’s time for clandestine operations. Seymour Hersh’s writings revealing US covert operations in Iran confirmed the suspicions of many that the US government is trying to find other means to confront Iran and thus to purge the power of one of the last standing foes of Israel.
The killing of Rafiq al-Hariri, whether directly by Israeli intelligence, or by any other for that matter, shall be exploited by those who want to see Israel as the only regional powerbroker. Hariri’s assassination is the kind of provocation that precedes major military undertakings or major political reshuffling. The latter is the most likely prospect for now, and the US move to recall its Ambassador from Syria “for urgent consultations”, coupled with the organized anti-Syrian campaign will also serve that goal.
One must have no illusions that Syria’s presence in Lebanon is for the sake of Lebanon. Far from it. But Damascus is terrified at the possibility that its withdrawal from Lebanon could risk the loss of a strategic ally. Moreover, the return of instability to the tiny Arab republic adjacent to Syria shall turn the tables in any future peace talks. Then, Israel will hold all the cards.
The Lebanese people have the right to demand and expect full sovereignty. Yet it would be a tragedy if Lebanon found itself free from an Arab neighbor only to fall under the grip of an alien foe, who along has killed tens of thousands of Lebanese in recent years.
It is a difficult position for Lebanon and equally difficult for Syria, which finds itself at the mercy of a hungry predator ready to make his final leap.
We might never know who is responsible for Rafiq al-Hariri’s death, but it’s almost sure that his death shall cultivate political turmoil of which Israel is the only beneficiary.
-Ramzy Baroud is a veteran Arab-American journalist and editor in chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]