The road to Damascus


WAS Syria responsible for the assassination on 14 February of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri? A part of Lebanese public opinion, which has been profoundly shocked, believes so. The denunciation by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, of the perpetrators of “this odious crime”, and of those who are behind them, has done little to dissipate the charges against Syria. The culpability of the Ba’ath regime is not in doubt for most of the international media. Journalists have offered several possible motives for the murder, of which the foremost is the determination of Damascus to keep Lebanon under its control with parliamentary elections due next May.

There were Syrian grievances against Hariri, who was accused of financing and attempting to promote an anti-Syrian front. There was another accusation: that Hariri had mobilised his friends (including the French president, Jacques Chirac) in favour of security council resolution 1559, voted through in September 2004 with the support of Paris and Washington, which called for “a free and fair presidential election in Lebanon”, and for all remaining foreign forces to withdraw, along with “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” (the Shia militias of the Hizbullah party, supported by Syria and Iran, and the Palestinian militias in refugee camps).

This death has given Washington an extra pretext for increasing pressure on Damascus. The United States ambassador in Syria was recalled for “urgent consultations”. The US deputy secretary of state for the Middle East, William Burns, present in Beirut for Hariri’s funeral, took the opportunity to announce that his death “must give renewed impetus to achieving a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon . . . What that means is the immediate and complete implementation of UN security council resolution 1559. What that also means is the complete and immediate withdrawal by Syria of all of its forces from Lebanon.” Burns seems to have forgotten that the US invaded and occupied Iraq without any mandate from the United Nations.

It is worth recalling that, at the time of the US invasion, Damascus believed that one of the main goals of that war was the encirclement of Syria (1). The US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, accused Damascus of having helped to arm Saddam Hussein, and of providing a base for the resistance organisations that harass the US occupation forces. The former secretary of state, Colin Powell, went to Syria in May 2003 to put these accusations to Assad, along with other longer-standing charges, such as Syria’s alleged alliance with Iran and its support for Hizbullah militias, which the US (but not the European Union) has placed on its list of terrorist organisations.

In such a situation the Syrian regime would hardly have wanted to worsen its case unless it was intent on suicide. This has led some observers to wonder whether implying the – too obvious – culpability of Syria might not have been the aim of Hariri’s assassins. Eyal Zisser, Syria specialist at the Dayan Institute of the University of Tel Aviv, says: “It’s 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” (2).

We need to ask ourselves what are the real objectives of Washington and Paris in Lebanon. If their aim is to establish real democracy, can that be constructed without the Shia, the main community with strong ties to Damascus? Can it be guaranteed by the opposition parties, given their rejection of the principle of one man, one vote and their defence of an obsolete confessional system? If the goal is the evacuation of occupied Lebanon, can the international community forget that other parts of the region have been occupied since 1967 – the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza (which may be evacuated this summer) and East Jerusalem – despite the many UN security council resolutions? Is this another case of double standards?

We are again in a time of obscure manoeuvres. In the Middle East we seem to have reached the second act, which includes the possibility of a revival of civil war in Lebanon: this does not seem to worry Lebanon’s current champions.

After the Iraq war, and despite the disaster of the occupation and the defeat of electoral candidates supported by Washington, major manoeuvres are now under way against countries that have long been on the US hit list: Iran and its ally, Syria, which is clearly the weakest link. Were those who killed Rafik Hariri aware that they were symbolically offering the international community the Syrian regime’s destiny on a plate?

(1) See Paul-Marie de La Gorce, “Syria surrounded”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, July 2004.

(2) Quoted by Jefferson Morley, “Who Killed Rafik Hariri?”, Washington Post, 16 February 2005.

Translated by Ed Emery

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