Levantine Complications

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri gave the United States an opportunity to demonstrate maturity and respect for the ability of people in the Middle East to handle their own affairs even (or especially) when those affairs have a tragic tinge. Naturally, the U.S. blew it and came off as something of a bull in a china shop.

The assassination, which inspired crowds estimated at 150,000 for his funeral, most of whom were more than ready to demand the withdrawal of the 14,000 Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon as part of the virtual protectorate that Syria exercises over Lebanese affairs, is profoundly tragic for Lebanon and could unleash a period of turmoil that could upset arrangements throughout the Middle East. Thus it is curious and perhaps dangerous that the United States has acted so swiftly, and on the basis of supposition rather than fact, to encourage placing the blame for the killing on Syria.

A self-made billionaire who during the 10 years he was prime minister presided over some real economic development and inspired a sense of hope in Lebanon following a long and bitter civil war, Rafik Hariri seems to have been a political leader of a type rarely found in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter). Although there were tales, probably with more than a bit of truth in them, that he or his companies profited from some of the rebuilding in Beirut over which he presided as prime minister, he did seem to care more about the country he led than his own personal power.

Hariri resigned the prime ministership in October largely because he was upset that Syria, which has exerted virtually complete control over Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990, had maneuvered to extend the term in office of President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian puppet. It seemed likely that as a newly minted opposition leader, he would undermine Lahoud’s power in elections scheduled for March.

Reason for Suspicion

Thus one can see why Syrian leader Bashar-al-Assad might want Hariri, who had lately become more aggressive in calling for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, dead. Assad’s hold on power is said to be somewhat shaky, and it is certainly not beyond the capabilities – logistical or moral – of the Syrian regime to engineer an assassination.

But Syrian involvement has not yet been proven. Lebanon is calling in Swiss explosives and DNA experts to assist, which should make the investigation more credible. Despite reasonable suspicions, however, the smart thing is to wait for a more definitive answer.

That is why it is somewhat puzzling that the United States has acted as if it already knows Syria did it. The statements surrounding the action were carefully hedged – White House spokesman Scott McClellan simply said, "Syria and their troop presence in Lebanon is a destabilizing force in the region. The terrorist attack … underscored the importance of Syria changing its behavior, by withdrawing its forces and helping to prevent attacks from happening in the first place." It fell well short of saying Syria was behind or had engineered the assassination. But recalling U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey for "consultations" is a clear sign – although admittedly short of war – that the U.S. is eager to pick a fight with Syria.

In calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the U.S. for once agreed with both France – French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac was reportedly personally close to Hariri – and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. And there are certainly plenty of armchair warriors in Washington think tanks who are eager to do battle with Syria, whose regime really is quite obnoxious.

But consider some possible consequences.

Upsetting Balances

The Middle East is something of a delicately balanced house of cards of institutional, ethnic, and power arrangements, and pushing and prodding in one place can have unintended and sometimes unpleasant consequences in both predictable and unexpected places.

The election in Iraq, for example, for all that it has demonstrated a desire for self-rule and weariness with both foreign and domestic terrorists, while not giving the Shi’ite clerical parties enough outright power to impose their will immediately, has strengthened the power of the Kurds in the north. Will that lead the Kurds to want to participate more closely in developing a constitution and participating in the political life of a reconstituted Iraq? Or will it give them more confidence to demand what they really want – virtual autonomy from central rule – and eventually to push harder for their ultimate goal, an independent Kurdistan?

An independent Kurdistan, from many perspectives, would be desirable. But however hard they push for it, a newly energized Kurdish population in Iraq will make both Turkey and Iran, which also have significant numbers of Kurds within their boundaries, nervous. Turkey is generally friendly to Israel, while Iran is generally hostile (though the two countries have done some back-channel deals over the years, they have in common a fear of Kurdish nationalism). Focusing Turkish and Iranian attention on the possible threat of Kurdish restiveness changes temporary alliances and the relative balance of power within the region.

Lebanese Complications

In Lebanon, there are serious questions about whether withdrawal of Syria from its position as "guardian" and chief power broker (backed by those 14,000 troops) will lead to more stability or less. The Lebanese army, absent those Syrian forces, is something of a joke. It has been little noted that recently the Shi’ite population in Lebanon has been increasing, and it is possible that they constitute something close to a majority in the country now.

For years the Lebanese government, in recognition of the demographics of 20 or 30 years ago, has guaranteed leadership positions for both Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. It is just possible that a genuinely democratic process, without slots guaranteed for representatives from certain ethnic or religious factions, would lead to Shi’ite dominance. A Shi’ite-dominated regime might (or might not) be interested in closer cooperation with Iran. It would arguably have more in common with Iran than a Syria run by a nominally secularist Ba’athist regime.

So would tearing Lebanon from Syria lead to violence? Even if it was short of the level of destruction during the 1975-1990 civil war, that could be quite destabilizing. And if a Shi’ite-dominated Lebanon moved closer to Iran in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of ethnic conflict that has raged in the region fairly constantly since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, that would hardly be an outcome the United States would welcome.

Leon Hadar, author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, thinks the U.S. might do well to let France handle the Lebanese situation. France, under the post-World War I League of Nations, had the "mandate" to rule both Lebanon and Syria in the past. It has taken pretty much the same position as the United States in the post-assassination crisis. Why not call Chirac’s bluff and see if France can make lemonade out of these lemons?

By moving so quickly to put pressure on Syria without actually casting blame (which indicates they have an idea that at least they don’t know for sure about Syria’s involvement in the assassination, which indicates that the deception of implying involvement is quite conscious) the administration certainly heightens the suspicion that Syria was already in the cross hairs and all that was needed to prompt more hostile actions possibly leading to an invasion was a credible pretext. The United States would do better to let the situation sort itself out without giving in to the temptation to meddle. Meddling always has unintended consequences and often leads to serious blowback.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).