Whether or not Syrian President Bashar Assad was behind Monday’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the car bombing is sure to strengthen forces inside the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush who have long argued for "regime change" in Damascus.
Before the bombing that killed Hariri, half a dozen of his bodyguards and at least five bystanders, the balance of power between anti-Assad hardliners and more flexible forces within the administration was roughly even.
Earlier this month, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered a hawk on Damascus, even insisted to a Congressional panel that "it is not our policy to destabilize Syria."
But, as suggested by Washington’s abrupt withdrawal of its ambassador in Damascus Tuesday morning, that position may well be in the process of changing, if it hasn’t changed already.
"The regime changers will be strengthened by this," predicted Michael Hudson, who teaches at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He said Washington’s precipitous recalling of its ambassador signals a "decision to really put the screws to the Syrians."
"Assuming they did it, this was very stupid," said Augustus Richard Norton, a specialist on Lebanon at Boston University, who agreed that the balance of power within the administration will definitely shift in favor of the hardliners.
Hariri, a businessman who made a fortune in Saudi Arabia and then ruled Lebanon for 10 of the last 15 years, enjoyed close personal ties with French President Jacques Chirac and cultivated friendly relations with Washington, where he owned one large house and was in the process of building a colossal mansion.
Given Syrian influence in Lebanon in the form of anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 troops and an active intelligence service in Lebanon for most of the past 30 years Hariri also cultivated close relations with Damascus, including business ties with influential officials.
But he broke with Syria last summer when he resigned as prime minister after Damascus insisted on suspending the constitutional limit on presidential terms so that Emile Lahoud could continue in office.
While Hariri did not actively oppose the move, he reportedly encouraged the U.S. and France to push through a remarkably tough UN Security Council resolution that demanded that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
The subsequent passage of UNSCR 1559 was not only a major blow to Damascus, but also served to unify and embolden the Lebanese opposition, which has been mobilizing for parliamentary elections scheduled for May on a common anti-Syrian platform.
While Hariri had not publicly embraced the opposition position, hardliners in Damascus, who some analysts believe exert more control over Lebanon than Assad, saw Hariri’s role as a betrayal.
"Uncomfortable though it may be for Syria in international opinion, in certain quarters of Syria the stakes in Lebanon are existential, and existential challenges may be deemed to justify existential solutions," said Norton, who believes that Syria, or at least some elements within the Syrian government, were behind the assassination.
At the same time that Syria was defending itself against Res. 1559, hawks and realists within the Bush administration were fighting over how far Washington should push Damascus to cooperate. Their main concerns were preventing the infiltration of "foreign fighters" across the border from Syria into Iraq and in arresting Iraqis living in Syria who were suspected by Washington to be financing and helping to organize a rapidly expanding insurgency, or at least freezing their bank accounts.
The hawks, centered primarily in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, have long favored a "regime change" policy for Damascus anyway.
One of Cheney’s top Middle East advisors, David Wurmser, and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith both with strong ties to Israel’s settler movement contributed to papers in the 1990s that urged Israel and the United States to arm and finance groups in both Lebanon and Syria to force Damascus’ withdrawal from Lebanon and destabilize the Ba’athist regime.
Since Washington’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003, they have argued Damascus’ alleged failure to fully cooperate with the occupation justified a more aggressive policy, including military strikes. More pragmatic factions, centered in the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and among military commanders on the ground, countered that Assad had in fact steadily increased his cooperation and that U.S. measures to actively destabilize his regime could backfire.
In December, the hawks launched a more public campaign with a series of opinion pieces in their favored press organs, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal, accusing Damascus of active support for the insurgency and calling for a major escalation.
"We could bomb Syrian military facilities," wrote William Kristol, the Standard‘s neoconservative editor. "We could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities; we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition…."
The campaign coincided, according to a Journal account, with the presentation to Bush of a list of options that included imposing tougher economic sanctions, downgrading diplomatic relations, more active U.S. support for anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon, and possible military strikes against alleged terrorist training camps in Syria.
None of these was approved at the time, however, although all of them and now possibly more, in the wake of Hariri’s assassination remain on the table.
While many Middle East specialists here appear to believe that the Syrian regime, or possibly a rogue element within it, was responsible for the blast, that view is by no means universal, particularly given the likelihood that Washington would blame Damascus in any event.
Indeed, one "senior State Department official" told the New York Times: "Even though there’s no evidence to link [the assassination] to Syria, Syria has, by negligence or design, allowed Lebanon to become destabilized."
Noting that Hariri had not identified himself completely with the opposition to Syria’s presence in Lebanon, Hudson told IPS that he considered that Islamist extremists trying to harm the Saudi royal family, which has been Hariri’s strongest supporter, was "a more plausible scenario." Al-Qaeda has said it was not responsible.
Others have suggested that Israel or their erstwhile allies in Lebanon, the Phalangist militia, may have been responsible, given the certainty that Syria would be blamed for the killing.
"It is certainly possible that the Syrian military leadership was sufficiently stupid and arrogant to decide to assassinate Hariri," according to C.S. Smith, a regional specialist at the University of Arizona. "But many others stood to benefit from such an act, including right-wing Phalangist Christian elements closely tied to neocons in the Bush administration."
Indeed, Walid Phares, a right-wing Lebanese-born Christian and fellow of the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), issued a statement immediately after the killing that appeared designed to cast suspicion on Syria and one of its allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
Another hardline neoconservative, former Bush speechwriter David Frum, writing Tuesday in the far-right National Review Online, fingered Assad as the party that "had the greatest motive" for the killing, even if he admitted that it may "seem incredible that young Bashar Assad would choose the path of confrontation with the United States."
If he was indeed responsible, noted Frum, "he has taken another huge step toward open war on the United States and its interests in the region."
"I would be very shocked if Syria has a hand in it because it’s not in the position to rock the boat at this point," said Bassam Haddad, a Levant expert at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who said he would not hazard an opinion until more evidence was forthcoming.
"It is obvious that any kind of rocking the boat is going to empower the opposition that will call for an immediate ouster of Syria from Lebanon."
(Inter Press Service)