Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?

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After the “October revolution” of 1917 in Russia, an angry communist militant accused Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar for education in the new order, of talking the language of the bourgeoisie. Lunacharsky replied that if a bourgeois says that the earth rotates around the sun, we should not believe the opposite in order to prove the purity of our beliefs.

After the assassination by car bomb on 14 February of Lebanon’s ex-prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, many people in the middle east and beyond doubt the accusation – cultivated particularly strongly by United States sources – that Syria is responsible. In the light of the Iraq war, they are inclined to refuse every word uttered by Washington: either because they don’t trust the Americans who falsely “cried wolf” over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or because of their inherent anti-Americanism, or because they reject the Americans’ tendency to a quick embrace of ideologically convenient and emotionally loaded conclusions in advance of proper study of the evidence.

Well, let’s forget about the Americans and the neo-conservatives for a moment. In this instance, they were only endorsing the version of events already adopted by the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens who mourned al-Hariri. So why are the Lebanese in their vast majority so convinced that the Syrians did it?

Lebanese pie, Syrian finger

Three influences combine to form this conviction: Syria’s military hold on Lebanon, its dealings with Rafiq al-Hariri in the past, and the current condition of the Damascus regime itself.

First, it is well known that the Syrian authorities maintain responsibility for Lebanon’s security. This is indeed is one of the main pretexts for Syria’s military “presence” in Lebanon; its troop deployment may have declined from around 35,000 at the time of the Taif agreement in 1989 to 15,000 in 2004, but its military and intelligence agencies still wield decisive security influence. By itself, this fact is enough to put Damascus in the frame for al-Hariri’s death. But it is reinforced by another significant fact: none of the previous political murders that occurred while Lebanon was under heavy Syrian influence – such as that of the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1977 and the Maronite (Christian) leader Rene Moawad in 1989 – were properly investigated or had their perpetrators held to account.

Second, it is also no secret that Syria targeted Rafiq al-Hariri’s political life many times before his physical life was destroyed. One fierce argument took place in 1996, when al-Hariri wanted to send the Lebanese army south to secure the country’s border with Israel. Damascus preferred to keep Hizbollah forces there, as part of its strategy of using Lebanon as a bargaining chip in its attempts to recover the Golan heights from Israel’s control.

Moreover, every Lebanese citizen was aware of Syria’s disgust over al-Hariri’s friendship with France’s president, Jacques Chirac. The Syrians blame this relationship for facilitating UN Security Council resolution 1559 in September 2004, which demanded their evacuation from Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbollah. The implementation of this resolution would deprive Syria of its only viable negotiating tool vis-à-vis Israel, and thus be fatal to its strategic interests.

In 2004, Syrian officials obliged al-Hariri to endorse a three-year extension in office of their puppet, Emile Lahoud, as Lebanon’s president. Even after this humiliation, al-Hariri was forced to resign as prime minister – but Syria, aware that he still nurtured political ambitions in advance of the parliamentary elections due in May 2005, continued to harass his supporters all over the country.

Syria consistently presents its role in Lebanon as the only guarantee of avoiding another civil war between the country’s Christians and Muslims. They feared that al-Hariri was on the point of joining his ally, Walid Jumblatt (Kamal’s son) in open opposition to Lahoud and his own successor as prime minister, the pro-Syrian Omar Karami. This would have dealt a tremendous blow to the myth that Lebanon’s political opposition is exclusively Christian.

Third, it is important to understand Rafiq al-Hariri’s killing in the context of the nature of the Syrian regime itself. This is a regime driven by a combination of militarism, ideology, and tribalism. It does not think on rational lines or ask such “utilitarian” questions as whether the killing of al-Hariri will bring it “benefit”: it thinks and acts in the same manner as its fellow-Ba’athist, Saddam Hussein, used to do.

The severe crisis of this semi-totalitarian, semi-tribal regime is now permanent. It has failed to liberate the land it lost to Israel in 1967, to adapt to the unfavourable global and regional changes begun by the collapse of its Soviet ally in 1991, to confront worldwide suspicions about its friends and intentions, and to achieve a single definite economic, social, or educational improvement in the condition of its people.

The official Syrian lexicon, from “brotherhood” with Lebanon to striking a “strategic balance” with Israel, has become a joke in the cafes of Beirut and Damascus (for opposition voices in Syria too are mounting). And when the bankruptcy of rhetoric matches that of accomplishment, all that remains is Frankensteinian energy: a horror machine unfettered by rationality.

Lebanon’s next independence

In the post-11 September 2001 era, the moderate Rafiq al-Hariri was in principle the politician most able to act as mediator between Syria and the west. In practice, Syria’s “rational” rulers chose to extend Emile Lahoud’s presidency – and in so doing, struck both Hariri and the west with a single blow.

Their action reveals a deep, irreconcilable contradiction between two political choices embodied by the figure of Rafiq al-Hariri and the military regime in Damascus. The first is motivated by “building” a nation-state, the second is obsessed by keeping it annexed and subjugated; the first is driven by life and openness to the world, the second by death, martyrdom and (its brotherhood with Iran excepted) isolation.

Lebanon has witnessed two modern prime ministers of historic stature. The first was Riad Solh, whose name is associated with the smooth, bloodless transition to independence in 1943. The second was Rafiq al-Hariri, whose name was beginning to be attached to the next, promised era of independence. His brutal assassination indicates how much more difficult this second transition will be, for its path could be paved with corpses.

Some things are true (to adapt a remark of George Orwell) even though the Americans say they are true. Isn’t all this enough for the Lebanese to accuse their Ba’ath “brothers” in Damascus?