February 15, 2005

Rafiq Al-Hariri Assassination - A Syrian Hand?

It is the conventional wisdom among Middle East specialists that nothing happens in Lebanon without Syrian approval or at least Syrian acquiescence. This is likely the case in the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. The U.S. intelligence community has already stated publicly that they believe that there is a Syrian hand, although it may never be proven since Syria is good at hiding that hand. Assassination is a long-time Syrian tactic, one it has used in Lebanon for years.

Why kill Rafiq Al-Hariri? Al-Hariri was a threat to the Syrians, to the continued presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon and their domination of the country. Syria has a long history of wanting to control events in Lebanon, which they consider their own back yard.

Syria also needs Lebanon to support its dismal economy. I think the Syrians always resented the French creation of Lebanon as a primarily a Christian enclave, much like the Iraqis resent the British exclusion of the lower part of Al-Basrah province (what is now Kuwait) from the original Kingdom of Iraq. They both regard this as, if I could borrow a phrase from one of favorite (read: sarcasm) authors, "imperial hubris."

At one point, the Syrians had over 30,000 troops in Lebanon, basically its entire III Corps. They agreed to withdraw them under the Taif Accords, but never did. Of course, the troops have been "asked" to remain in Lebanon for "security" by the Lebanese government. Later on, they did pull out about half of their forces, and moved the remaining troops from the Beirut area to the Biqa' Valley (out of sight, out of mind) - getting them out of the Biqa' might be problematic. I don't think you will see the continued withdrawal of Syrian forces. They have between 14,000 and 15,000 there now, and this probably represents the minimum level they need to exert direct influence over events in the country.

The Syrians also have considerable influence over the actions of the Iranian-back group Hizballah. They also have control over the amount and form of Iranian support that reaches the group's strongholds in the Biqa' valley.

Al-Hariri, a pro-western billionaire with ties to the Saudi royal family, has been vocal in his calls for Syrian comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Hariri, who resigned as prime minister late last year, may well have become the prime minister again after the upcoming elections. Obviously, his return to that post is not in Syria's interest.

Did Syrian military intelligence - the "usual suspects" - do this? I doubt it. Did they have Hizballah or another surrogate do it? That's where my money is.

Of note, Syria's former military intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kan'an, is now Syrian minister of the interior. He is in the position to make the assassination of Al-Hariri happen.

interestingly, the United States has withdrawn its ambassador to Syria following a demarche to the Syrian government. The ambassador relayed Washington's "profound outrage" of the AL-Hariri assassination, despite the total lack of evidence implicating Syria in the incident.

As an aside, here is a more personalized illustration of how many Syrians view Lebanon. I had a conversation with the wife of a Syrian doctor friend.

ME: Layla, wayn al-"docteur"? (Where is the doctor?)

LAYLA: Huwa 'ambi-"shopping" fi l-mhafazih. (He's shopping in the province.)

ME: Ayni mhafazih? Huwa mu fi Sham? (Which province? He's not in Damascus?)

LAYLA: La la, huwa fi l-mhafizih, Bayrut y'ani. (He's in the province, Beirut, I mean.)

Lebanon, the province.