Middle East

Lebanon and Syria — The Hariri Affair

Lebanese hold a portrait murdered former prime minister Rafiq Hariri

Lebanese hold a portrait of murdered former prime minister Rafiq Hariri as people celebrate the fall of the pro-Syrian government. (Photo: Mahmoud Zayat / AFP-Getty Images)

As President Bush’s whirlwind tour of Europe came to an end last week it appeared at least to some extent to be an effort by Washington to rebuild bridges burned by the Iraqi war and subsequent occupation, as well as an attempt to bring Russia to heel for its most recent undertakings and the current state of its “democracy.”

Upon closer look, however, a serious Syrian-Lebanese undertone is discernible. When viewed in light of the two-week-old Sharm el Sheik accord, a clear picture emerges of the Middle East peace process and its next step. The assassination of Rafiq Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, therefore could not have come at a more opportune moment for the United States, which is working to build support for a move against Syria, one of its three major foes in the Middle East.

If appearances are correct, then the plan that the United States, Britain, France and Israel have set in motion is as ingenious as it is risky.

The success of this strategy may not be visible for some months, but could prove vital for making progress in Iraq and ensuring safety in the evacuation of Gaza and the West Bank.

This is perhaps one reason why Israel is throwing caution to the wind and granting concessions — the likes of which would not have seemed possible six months ago — to the newly formed Palestinian government under Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel Giveth

The meeting between Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at Sharm el Sheik was significant not only because of its potential effect on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also because it was the first time in Israel’s fifty seven years of existence that its leader was asked to join three Arab leaders without any Western mediation. (The Bush administration made an excellent last minute maneuver by retracting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s presence.)

The results, although not groundbreaking, were an icebreaker in that the foundations of a four-way accord were implemented.

Obviously, the Gaza withdrawal was employed before Sharm-El-Sheikh but it was the assassination of Hariri not the summit at Sharm-El-Sheikh that spurred Sharon and his cabinet to grant so much dispensation to the Palestinians .

First, the Israeli cabinet approved the release of several hundred Palestinian prisoners and left open the possibility of releasing some of those prisoners with “blood on their hands”.

The Israelis also agreed to remove troops from the heavily guarded Philadelphi corridor. This borderland between Gaza and Egypt is viewed by Israel as one of the main trafficking routes for arms for the terrorist groups based in Rafah and the rest of Gaza. A withdrawal from this area did not seem remotely feasible six months ago.

During the last two weeks, Israel has also purged top officials in its armed and security forces. The dismissal of highly regarded Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon —Israel’s senior army commander — was immediately followed by the dismissal of the equally respected Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Beit security service. At the same time Brig. Aharon Zeevi, chief of military intelligence, was dismissed. Neither Dichter nor Yaalon was given the extra years service afforded to all their predecessors.

This rush for results has occurred post the assassination of Hariri and not post Sharm-El-Sheikh. It seems the assassination has precipitated major efforts from Israel to appease Washington, London and Paris in the time frame they have to aid the removal of Syrian influence in Lebanon.

The Feb. 20 Israeli cabinet meeting was of great import, for many of the above objectives were agreed there. In addition, the cabinet also approved bringing Gush Katif under what is to all intents and purposes marshal law. The settlement has been cordoned off to prevent the settlers’ supporters from installing themselves and thereby increasing the difficulty of their removal.

At this very meeting, as reported by Debkafile, Sharon declared: “Anyone who speaks or writes against the disengagement plan is guilty of incitement.” He then clamped down on the media.

Obviously, the most telling move by Sharon has been the removal of such top players in his army and security forces.

Yaalon, Dichter and Zeevi gave Sharon sound advice during the most intense and violent periods of the intifada. However, the fundamental problem for Sharon regarding these three distinguished men was their outspoken opposition and objection to the Gaza withdrawal (albeit through professional channels). They argued that the evacuation of troops and settlers from the Gaza strip would create a “powder keg” in Israel’s south.

One can suppose that Sharon was working along the lines of David Ben-Gurion in that “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.”

Druze-Christian-Amal Alliance

The world has already seen the mass protests taking place on the streets of Lebanon calling for the withdrawal of Syria’s troops and a cessation of its influence over the government. Now with Prime Minister Omar Karami’s resignation, and that of his pro-Syria government, the protests have turned to calling for the resignation of President Emile Lahoud. This new development was initiated by Walid Jumblatt, leader of the opposition Druze party, immediately after Hariri’s assassination and represents a move toward a proper democracy, one in which Syria does not have a hand.

On top of this, there has been a mobilization of Lebanese expatriate communities throughout Europe and the United States, so as to drum up popular support from the populace in the West.

While an international team has begun the investigation into Hariri’s assassination, United States, French and Israeli intelligence points the finger of blame clearly at Gen. Rostum Ghazallah of Syrian military intelligence. However, it also seems that the Lebanese general intelligence service and its chief, Jamil Al-Sayad, was also complicit in the attack. The Druze party insists that the commission in charge of the investigation must therefore call Ghazallah as its first witness.

Before one can get too far entrenched in the possibilities, some prerequisites need to be fulfilled in order to arrive at a successful conclusion — a means to a means, if you will.

To begin, the street rallies will only succeed if a) they drum up popular support both within the Middle East and in the West, and b) they portray a vox populi. (I.e., the rallies need to be both large in number and sustained over a long period of time, whether taking place in Lebanon or in expatriate communities in the West.)

In 2004, we saw a clear example of how this can prove successful with the prolonged street rallies in the Ukraine that saw a fresh ballot and the election of the popular Viktor Yushenko.

If sustained Lebanese rallies can drum up enough support, then with a directive media, the results will be favourable and the street protests will have played their part.

Also, the intifada in Lebanon needs to be free from violence. Lebanon does not need another civil war and the “anti-Syrianites” will not gain popular support for their cause if they are seen as the instigators of bloodshed. Ultimately the upper hand will be lost if the uprising turns violent.

However, most important would be the timely split of the Shiite party along Amal-Hezbollah lines. Hezbollah is obviously pro-Damascus and possibly complicit in the Hariri killing. If Jumblatt can inspire the leader of Amal, Nabi Berri (also current parliamentary speaker), to join the anti-Syrian alliance, then this would be the beginning of the end for the Syrians in Lebanon.

The implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559 which called for, among other things, the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil was unanimously approved. However, this is but a starting block. The influential governments of the United States, Britain and France need to pursue this further if the uprising and road to democracy is to be successful for the Lebanese. They must see it through to the end and encourage the implementation of the resolution and not just a redeployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon. More covertly, there needs to be (and may already has been) an influx of foreign intelligence agents into the uprising to help make it a success. They will be there to stop Syrian agents and Hezbollah operatives from turning a peaceful uprising into a violent and bloody civil war.

Hariri’s End Game

The elimination of Syria’s influence in Lebanon will be another major step in the Middle East peace process. With an unfavourable government, Hezbollah will not have a free reign on Israel’s northern border. A result that will also aid the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The uprising will therefore reduce the number of states sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East to just two: Syria and Iran.

The move would also force the hand of the Iranians. They have given Syria word that they will stand firm with their staunch ally. If they do stand firm with Syria, and Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are instructed to disrupt the democratization of Lebanon or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in anyway, then Iran will lose any form of diplomatic ties it currently has with the West. Diplomatic pressure could then quickly turn to military threat over their nuclear ambitions.

However, if the Iranians do not stand alongside Syria, their terrorist and armed forces currently stationed there may be forced to withdraw. A loss of such a stronghold will be an extreme setback for the Iranians in their ultimate goal of the destruction of the state of Israel. It would also mean a massive reduction in the number of weapons reaching the Palestinian territories.

On the flip side of this coin, the current situation in Lebanon could also force the hand of Abbas, whose relationship with the terrorist factions in the territories is fundamental for both Israel’s Gaza evacuation and the progress toward peace. If he stands next to Sharon and the West in support of the removal of Syrian influence in Lebanon the terrorist factions in Gaza would cease all communication and withdraw from the ceasefire, which would undoubtedly lead to further attacks and more Israeli and Palestinian bloodshed. Sharon could then claim that the Palestinian government is not reciprocating all his efforts and that no matter how many concessions he grants them, the Palestinians are not a nation with whom Israel can seek peace diplomatically.

However, if Abbas neither supports the Lebanese uprising nor condemns it, and thereby supports Syria — and in essence, Hezbollah and Iran — then he would anger his American and European backers, and Israel will argue that the Palestinians are not serious about peace and are fundamentally entrenched in terrorism.

It is obvious that Ghazallah and Al-Sayad are behind the assassination of Hariri, but does the buck stop there? Who else was involved? Hariri’s assassination does not seem to have been an intelligent move if it was undertaken by the Syrians and their Lebanese puppets, and seems even less so if it was undertaken by any Iranian influence. Hariri was a true advocate for the progress of Lebanon both democratically and economically. His assassination just may be the spark that was needed to light the fire of democracy in Lebanon.