Thursday, February 17, 2005

A Murder of Little Mystery

Amir Taheri, NY Post:
Who killed Rafik Hariri and why? The question will haunt the politics of Lebanon, and of the Middle East beyond it, for some time to come. A former Lebanese prime minister, Hariri had established himself as a major figure in the regional politics, one capable of offering his nation leadership at a time when the status quo in the Middle East faces major changes. ...

So: Who did it and why?

Consider the first question that any murder-mystery detective would ask: What might have been the motive?

There are two likely suspects inside Lebanon:

Hezbollah: The Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah (Party of God) and its patrons in Tehran never liked Hariri, who opposed its policy of using Lebanon as an Iranian glacis in a proxy war against Israel.

The Syro-Lebanese mafia: That mafia knows it can live and prosper only as long as Lebanon lacks a proper government. And the man most likely to help Lebanon build such a government was none other than Rafik Hariri.

And two outsiders:

Iran: Tehran's ruling mullahs have repeatedly expressed alarm at what they perceived as an agenda set by Hariri to de-couple Lebanon from Syria, move towards separate peace talks with the Jewish state and remove Hezbollah's armed units from the ceasefire line with Israel.

Syria: The Lebanese almost unanimously believe, but dare not say loudly, that this is the culprit. The Baathist regime in Damascus never liked Hariri. An independently wealthy businessman, he did not need Syrian patronage to amass a fortune. He was also close enough to the Saudis, the French and the Americans not to need Syrian endorsement as a statesman of stature.

Relations between Hariri and the Syrians had never been warm.

Hariri had great ambitions for Lebanon. In a conversation several years ago he rejected a suggestion that Lebanon was too small to claim leadership among the Arab nations. "No country is small," he said. "It is only governments that may think and act small."

Needless to say, Lebanon has no chance of going anywhere without recovering its sovereignty, which means putting an end to Syrian tutelage.

Syria has never recognized Lebanon (a founding member of the United Nations) as an independent nation. It refuses to name an ambassador to Beirut or accept a Lebanese embassy in Damascus. Syria's argument is the same that Saddam Hussein used to justify his 1990 annexation of Kuwait.

For some 20 years, Syria has treated Lebanon as a fiefdom, making and un-making presidents and prime ministers there. Syria has 30,000 to 40,000 troops in Lebanon, a force almost twice the size of the Lebanese national army. And the Syrian network of informers, agents, business contacts, pseudo-politicians and thugs may run into tens of thousands.

Lebanon is big business for the Syrian elite — which (in one World Bank estimate) earns something like .5 billion a year out of the businesses it controls in Lebanon. To that must be added the mafia-style tithes that the Syrian intelligence services collect from Lebanese businesses. Most of that loot goes to the elite of Baathists and security operatives who have dominated Syria since the mid-1960s.

Hariri wanted to change all that. Last August, he traveled to Damascus to persuade the Syrians that it was time they withdrew their troops from Lebanon and dismantled their security apparatus there. As prime minister, Hariri was prepared to promise the Syrians a privileged position in Lebanon and even allow some of their questionable businesses to remain intact.

Baathist Syria, however, does not want allies, and even less friends, in Lebanon: It wants lackeys and agents. Hariri was told in no uncertain terms that he should not play with dangerous ideas.

Damascus moved fast to pre-empt Hariri. It engineered an amendment to the Lebanese constitution to extend the term of President Emil Lahoud, a Damascus protégé, for three years. That left Hariri with little choice but to resign as prime minister.

But Hariri was a fighter. Immediately after his resignation, he began putting together a coalition of parties and personalities opposed to Syrian intervention in the internal politics of Lebanon.

An international coalition, jointly led by France and the United States, quickly produced U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanese territory and the disarmament of militias, which mainly means the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah.

Syria saw that as a declaration of war by Hariri. At a December meeting with senior Arab diplomats in Damascus, Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam described Hariri as "the warhead used by France and the United States against Syria."

The Syrian riposte came soon. Having placed Omar Karame (one of its oldest protégés in Lebanon) as Lebanese prime minister, Syria engineered a gerrymandering scheme to weaken Hariri's electoral power base in Beirut's Sunni districts. The scheme would ensure that May's Lebanese elections yield a pro-Syrian majority. The strategy is clear: Syria wants a docile Lebanese parliament to reject U.N. resolution 1559, and present the Syrian occupation as fulfilling the ardent desires of the Lebanese nation.

Syria had a clear motive in killing Hariri. It also had the means, if only because its security services control Beirut. Certainly, no one could have smuggled hundreds of kilos of explosives into the heart of the city without the Syrian Mukhaberat learning about it.

Syria also had a long history of murdering its political foes in Lebanon: two of Lebanon's presidents, Bechir Gemayel and Rene Mouaouad; the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt; the publisher Salim al-Lawzi — these are only the best-known victims of Syrian assassination policy.

Friends of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claim that even if the Syrians murdered Hariri, young Bashar knew nothing about it. Rather, some rogue elements in the Syrian Mukhaberat did the dastardly deed. But this excuse is worse than the crime. Syria claims to be in Lebanon to protect it against rogue elements. If it can't do that, there is even less reason why it should continue to occupy Lebanon. ...