The Dangerous Implications of the Hariri Assassination and the US Response

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The
broader implications of the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was seen by many as the embodiment
of the Lebanese people’s efforts to rebuild their country in the
aftermath of its 15-year civil war, are yet to unfold. A Sunni Muslim,
Hariri reached out to all of Lebanon’s ethnic and religious communities
in an effort to unite the country after decades of violence waged
by heavily armed militias and foreign invaders.

The
assassination took place against the backdrop of a growing political
crisis in Lebanon. This began in September 2004, when Syria successfully
pressured the Lebanese parliament, in an act of dubious constitutionality,
to extend the term of the unpopular pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud,
a move roundly condemned by the international community. Washington
was particularly virulent in its criticism, which can only be considered
ironic, given that the United States attempted a similar maneuver
back in 1958 to extend the term of the pro-American president Camille
Chamoun. The result was a popular uprising suppressed only when
President Dwight Eisenhower sent in U.S. Marines.

Hariri
had his critics, particularly among the country’s poor majority,
whose situation deteriorated under the former prime minister’s adoption
of a number of controversial neoliberal economic policies. A multi-billionaire
businessman prior to becoming prime minister, there were widespread
charges of corruption in the awarding of contracts, many of which
went to a company largely owned by Hariri himself. A number of treasured
historic buildings relatively undamaged from war were demolished
to make room for grandiose construction projects.

The
size and sophistication of the explosion that killed Hariri, his
bodyguards, and several bystanders have led many to speculate that
foreign intelligence units may have been involved. Initial speculation
has focused on the Syrians, who had previously worked closely with
Hariri as prime minister. That relationship was broken by the Syrians’
successful effort to extend the term of President Lahoud, with whom
Hariri had frequently clashed as prime minister. As a result, Hariri
was poised to lead an anti-Syrian front in the upcoming parliamentary
elections in May.

Hariri
made lots of other enemies as well, however, including rival Lebanese
groups, the Israeli government, Islamic extremists, and powerful
financiers with interests in his multi-billion dollar reconstruction
efforts. A previously-unknown group calling itself "Victory
and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon" claimed responsibility for
the attack, citing Hariri’s close ties to the repressive Saudi monarchy.
As of this writing, there is no confirmation that they were responsible
for the blast or if such a group even exists.

While
Syria remains the primary suspect, no evidence has been presented
to support the charge. Damascus has publicly condemned the killings
and denied responsibility. Syria’s regime, while certainly ruthless
enough to do such a thing, is usually not so brazen. They would
have little to gain from uniting the Lebanese opposition against
them or for provoking the United States and other Western nations
to further isolate their government.

The
United States, however, has indirectly implicated Syria in the attack
and has withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus.

Syria’s
Role in Lebanon

Syrian
forces first entered Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of the Lebanese
president as the primary component of an international peacekeeping
force authorized by the Arab League to try to end Lebanon’s civil
war. The United States quietly supported the Syrian intervention
as a means of blocking the likely victory by the leftist Lebanese
National Movement and its Palestinian allies. As the civil war continued
in varying manifestations in subsequent years, the Syrians would
often play one faction off against another in an effort to maintain
their influence. Despite this, they were unable to defend the country
from the U.S.-backed Israeli invasion in 1982, the installation
of the Phalangist Amin Gemayel as president, and the U.S. military
intervention to help prop up Gemayel’s rightist government against
a popular uprising. Finally, in late 1990, Syrian forces helped
the Lebanese oust the unpopular interim Prime Minister General Michel
Aoun, which proved instrumental in ending the 15-year civil war.
(Given that General Aoun’s primary outside supporter was Iraq’s
Saddam Hussein, the United States quietly backed this Syrian action
as well.)

The
end of the civil war did not result in the end of the Syrian role
in Lebanon, however. Most Lebanese at this point resent the ongoing
presence of Syrian troops and Syria’s overbearing influence on their
government.

The
Bush administration, Congressional leaders of both parties, and
prominent media commentators have increasingly made reference to
"the Syrian occupation of Lebanon." Strictly speaking,
however, this is not an occupation in the legal sense of the word,
such as in the case of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara or
Israel’s occupation of Syria’s Golan region and much of the Palestinian
Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem), all of which
are recognized by the United Nations and international legal authorities
as non-self-governing territories. Lebanon has experienced direct
foreign military occupation, however: from 1978 to 2000, Israel
occupied a large section of southern Lebanon and – from June
1982 through May 1984 – much of central Lebanon as well, resulting
in the deaths of thousands of Lebanese civilians.

A
more accurate analogy to the current Syrian role would be that of
the Soviets in the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe during
much of the Cold War, in which these nations were effectively client
states. They were allowed to maintain their independence and distinct
national institutions yet were denied their right to pursue an autonomous
course in their foreign and domestic policies.

Currently,
Syria has only 14,000 troops in Lebanon, mostly in the Bekaa Valley
in the eastern part of the country, a substantial reduction from
the 40,000 Syrian troops present in earlier years. This does not
mean that calls for an immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces and
an end to Syrian interference in Lebanon’s political affairs are
not morally and legally justified. However, the use of the term
"occupation" by American political leaders is an exaggeration
and may be designed in part to divert attention from the continuing
U.S. military, diplomatic, and financial support of the real ongoing
military occupations by Israel and Morocco.

In
September of last year, the United States – along with France
and Great Britain – sponsored a resolution before the UN Security
Council that, among other things, called upon "all remaining
foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon." UN Security Council
resolution 1559 was adopted with six abstentions and no negative
votes and builds upon UN Security Council resolution 520, adopted
in 1982, which similarly calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

The
Bush administration, with widespread bipartisan Congressional support,
has cited Syria’s ongoing violation of these resolutions in placing
sanctions upon Syria. Ironically, however, no such pressure was
placed upon Israel for violating UNSC resolution 520 and nine other
resolutions (the first being adopted in 1978) calling on Israel
to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. In fact, during the Clinton
administration, the U.S. openly called on Israel to not unilaterally
withdraw from Lebanon as required, even as public opinion polls
in Israel showed that a sizable majority of Israelis supported an
end to the Israeli occupation, during which hundreds of Israeli
soldiers were killed.

Today,
many of the most outspoken supporters of a strict enforcement of
UNSC resolution 1159 – such as Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer
of California – were also among the most prominent opponents
of enforcing similar resolutions when they were directed at Israel.
In short, both Republicans and Democrats agree that Lebanese sovereignty
and international law must be defended only if the government challenging
these principles is not a U.S. ally.

(Israel
was finally forced out of Lebanon in May 2000 as a result of attacks
by the militant Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah. Four months later,
the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West
Bank and Gaza Strip began. Militant Palestinians claim they were
inspired by the fact that Israel ended its 22-year occupation not
because of the U.S.-led peace process and not because of the United
Nations – which was blocked by the United States from enforcing
its resolutions – but because of armed struggle by radical
Islamists. Though, for a number of reasons, such tactics are unlikely
to succeed in the occupied Palestinian territories, the support
of extremist Islamist groups and the use of violence by large sectors
of the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation can for the
most part be attributed to the United States refusing to support
an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon through diplomatic means.)

What
Next?

Whether
or not the Syrians played a role in Hariri’s assassination, his
death will likely escalate pressure by the Lebanese to challenge
Syria’s domination of their government. Once centered primarily
in the country’s Maronite Christian community, anti-Syrian sentiment
is growing among Lebanese from across the ethnic and ideological
spectrum. Ultimately, the country’s fate will be determined by the
Lebanese themselves. If the United States presses the issue too
strongly, however, it risks hardening Syria’s position and allowing
Damascus to defend its ongoing domination of Lebanon behind anti-imperialist
rhetoric.

While
there are many areas in which the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad
should indeed be challenged, such as its overbearing influence in
Lebanon and its poor human rights record, there is a genuine fear
that increased U.S. efforts to isolate the regime and the concomitant
threats of military action against Syria will undermine the efforts
of Lebanese and Syrians demanding change.

One
major problem is that most charges against the Syrian government
by the Bush administration and the Congressional leadership of both
parties are rife with hyperbole and double standards.

For
example, the United States has demanded that Syria eliminate its
long-range and medium-range missiles, while not insisting that pro-Western
neighbors like Turkey and Israel – with far more numerous and
sophisticated missiles on their territory – similarly disarm.
The United States has also insisted that Syria unilaterally eliminate
its chemical weapons stockpiles, while not making similar demands
on U.S. allies Israel and Egypt – which have far larger chemical
weapons stockpiles – to do the same. The United States has
demanded an end to political repression and for free and fair elections
in Syria while not making similar demands of even more repressive
and autocratic regimes in allied countries like Saudi Arabia and
Uzbekistan.

Contrary
to U.S. charges that Syria is a major state supporter of international
terrorism, Syria is at most a very minor player. The U.S. State
Department has noted how Syria has played a critical role in efforts
to combat al-Qaeda and that the Syrian government has not been linked
to any acts of international terrorism for nearly 20 years. The
radical Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have
political offices in Damascus, as they do in a number of Arab capitals,
but they are not allowed to conduct any military activities. A number
of left-wing Palestinian factions also maintain offices in Syria,
but these groups are now largely defunct and have not engaged in
terrorist operations for many years.

Much
has been made of Syrian support for the radical Lebanese Shi’ite
group Hezbollah. However, not only has Syrian support for the group
been quite minimal in recent years, the group is now a legally recognized
Lebanese political party and serves in the Lebanese parliament.
During the past decade, its militia have largely restricted their
use of violence to Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon
and in disputed border regions of Israeli-occupied Syria, not against
civilians, thereby raising serious questions as to whether it can
actually still be legally considered a terrorist group.

Currently,
the Bush administration has expressed its dismay at Russia’s decision
to sell Syria anti-aircraft missiles, claiming that it raises questions
in regard to President Vladimir Putin’s commitment against terrorism.
The administration has been unable to explain, however, how selling
defensive weapons to an internationally recognized government aids
terrorists.

Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice and Congressional leaders have also accused
Syria of threatening the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, Syria
has pledged to provide Israel with internationally enforced security
guarantees and full diplomatic relations in return for a complete
Israeli withdrawal from Syrian territory seized in the 1967 war,
in concordance with UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338,
long recognized as the basis for peace. They have also called for
a renewal of peace talks with Israel, which came very close to a
permanent peace agreement in early 2000. However, the right-wing
U.S.-backed Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has
refused to resume negotiations and pledges it will never withdraw
from the Golan, thereby raising questions as to whether it is really
Syria that is primarily at fault.

Another
questionable anti-Syrian charge is in regard to their alleged support
of Saddam Hussein and ongoing support of anti-American insurgents
in Iraq. In reality, though both ruled by the Ba’ath Party, Syria
had broken diplomatic relations with Baghdad back in the 1970s and
was the home of a number of anti-Saddam exile groups. Syria and
Iraq backed rival factions in Lebanon’s civil war. Syria was the
only country to side with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and contributed
troops to the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield in reaction to Iraq’s
invasion of Kuwait. Syria, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security
Council in 2002, supported the U.S.-backed resolution 1441 demanding
that Iraq cooperate with UN inspectors or else face "severe
consequences." The Syrian government has substantially beefed
up security along its borders with Iraq, and U.S. military officials
have acknowledged that relatively few foreign fighters have actually
entered Iraq via Syria. Most critically, there is no reason that
Syria would want the insurgents to succeed, given that the primary
insurgent groups are either supporters of the old anti-Syrian regime
in Baghdad or are Islamist extremists similar to those who seriously
challenged the Syrian government in 1982 before being brutally suppressed.
Given that Assad’s regime is dominated by Syria’s Alawite minority,
which has much closer ties to Iraq’s Shi’ites than with the Sunnis
who dominate the Arab and Islamic world, and that the Shi’ite-dominated
slate that won the recent Iraqi elections shares their skepticism
about the U.S. role in the Middle East, they would have every reason
to want to see the newly elected Iraqi government succeed so U.S.
troops could leave.

Despite
the highly questionable assertions that form the basis of the Bush
administration’s antipathy toward Syria, there have essentially
been no serious challenges to the Bush administration’s policy on
Capitol Hill. Indeed, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate
Democratic leader Harry Reid have strongly defended President George
W. Bush’s policies toward Iraq and Lebanon and helped push through
strict sanctions against Syria based upon these same exaggerations
and double standards. (See my article "The
Syria Accountability Act and the Triumph of Hegemony
,"
Oct. 27, 2003.) During the 2004 election campaign, Senator John
Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, criticized President
Bush for not being anti-Syrian enough.

Among
the few dissenters is Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who
expressed his concern to Secretary of State Rice during recent hearings
on Capitol Hill that the tough talk against Syria was remarkably
similar to what was heard in regard to Iraq a few years earlier.
One of only eight members of Congress to vote against the Syria
Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act in the fall
of 2003, he warned his fellow senators that the language was broad
enough that the administration might later claim it authorized military
action against Syria.

As
long as the vast majority of Democrats are afraid to appear "soft"
toward the Syrian dictatorship and as long as so few progressive
voices are willing to challenge the Democrats, President Bush appears
to have few obstacles in his way should he once again choose to
lead the country to war.

March
3, 2005

Stephen
Zunes [send him mail] is a
professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies
Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle
East editor for Foreign Policy in
Focus
and is the author of Tinderbox:
U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism
(Common
Courage Press, 2003). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy
in Focus
.

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