If Syria killed Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and mastermind of its revival after the civil war, it must be judged an act of political suicide. Syria is already under great international pressure from the US, France and Israel. To kill Hariri at this critical moment would be to destroy Syria’s reputation once and for all and hand its enemies a weapon with which to deliver the blow that could finally destabilise the Damascus regime, and even possibly bring it down.
So attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible. The murder is more likely to be the work of one of its many enemies. This is not to deny that Syria has made grave mistakes in Lebanon. Its military intelligence apparatus has interfered far too much in Lebanese affairs. A big mistake was to insist on changing the Lebanese constitution to extend the mandate of President Emile Lahoud – known for his absolute allegiance to Syria – for a further three years. Syria’s military intelligence chief in Lebanon, General Rustum Ghazalah, was reported to have threatened and insulted Hariri to force him to accept the extension. This caused great exasperation among all communities in Lebanon. Hariri resigned as prime minister in protest.
Syria appears to have recognised its mistake. President Bashar al-Assad last week sacked General Hassan Khalil, head of military intelligence, and replaced him with his own brother-in-law, General Asaf Shawkat. A purge of the military intelligence apparatus in Lebanon is expected to follow.
It remains to be seen whether this will calm Syria’s opponents in Lebanon, who have declared a “democratic and peaceful intifada for independence” – in other words, a campaign of passive resistance to drive Syria out.
Hariri was not a diehard enemy of Syria. For 10 of the past 12 years he served as Lebanon’s prime minister under Syria’s aegis. A few days before his murder on February 14 he held a meeting with Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Walid Muallim. They were reported to have discussed a forthcoming visit by Hariri to Damascus. Hariri had not officially joined the opposition in Lebanon, but was thought to be attempting to mediate between Syria and the opposition.
If Syria did not kill Hariri, who could have? There is no shortage of potential candidates, including far-right Christians, anxious to rouse opinion against Syria and expel it from Lebanon; Islamist extremists who have not forgiven Syria its repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 80s; and, of course, Israel.
Israel’s ambition has long been to weaken Syria, sever its strategic alliance with Iran and destroy Hizbullah. Israel has great experience at “targeted assassinations” – not only in the Palestinian territories but across the Middle East. Over the years, it has sent hit teams to kill opponents in Beirut, Tunis, Malta, Amman and Damascus.
Syria, Hizbullah and Iran have stood up against US and Israeli hegemony over the region. Syria continues to demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, seized in 1967. Damascus will not allow Lebanon to conclude a separate peace with Israel unless its own claim is also addressed.
Hizbullah, in turn, is possibly the only Arab force to have inflicted a defeat on Israel. Its guerrillas forced Israel out of south Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. Hizbullah continues to be a big irritant to Israel because it has acquired a deterrent capability. Israel can no longer attack Lebanon with impunity – as it did for decades – without risking a riposte from Hizbullah rockets.
Iran’s nuclear programme threatens to break Israel’s regional monopoly of weapons of mass destruction, which is the main reason it is under immense pressure to abandon uranium enrichment.
The US and Israel have been trying to rally international support against Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has condemned Iran as a prime sponsor of international terror. Syria has been condemned as a “destabilising” force in the region, and is in the dock because of Hariri’s assassination.
The US and Israel have also been urging European governments to declare Hizbullah a “terrorist organisation”. France has its own quarrel with Syria, and President Jacques Chirac is outraged at the murder of his close friend Hariri, but Paris does not consider Hizbullah a terrorist organisation. For France, and for the vast majority of Arabs, Hizbullah is a national liberation movement as well as a big political actor in Lebanon.
There is far more to this crisis than a struggle between rival clans in Lebanon.
Patrick Seale is author of Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East