Indulging in speculation regarding the identity of Lebanese former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri’s real assassins is of little value now. What demands urgent scrutiny is how his murder will play a large part in the remolding of Lebanon’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the balance of power in the region.
So while the Feb. 14 blast was in Beirut, its tremors were felt in Damascus.
The tide is turning against Syria, and it is turning fast. Both Israel and the United States are up in arms to bring an end to Syria’s hegemony over Lebanese affairs. But one must not be too hasty to believe that the American-Israeli action is motivated by their earnest concern for Lebanese sovereignty. Look a few miles to the east, to Iraq, and be assured that meaningful national sovereignty is the least of Washington’s concerns at this point. Skip through the brief, albeit bloody, history between Israel and Lebanon, and you’ll reach the same conclusion: Lebanon’s sovereignty is nowhere to be found on Israel’s list of things to do. In fact, Israel’s violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty continue unabated.
However, Syria must be ousted from Lebanon because its presence there beefs up Syria’s standing as a regional power capable of dictating the terms of future agreements between itself and Israel on one hand, and between Lebanon and Israel on the other. Without a doubt, it is wrong that Lebanon does not hold the keys to its own future, but it’s not Lebanon’s compromised position that worries Israel.
Despite its military primacy, Israel is still a very small country. It is incapable of dealing with a cluster of other countries all at once. Imagine how much more arduous Israel’s task would be if late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to sign a separate peace deal with Israel, and if he had been joined by Jordan, Syria, and the others. Or how much tougher it would’ve become if Egypt linked any normalization with Israel to a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, in accordance with international law.
Israel has greater leverage politically, economically, and militarily than any of its Arab neighbors standing alone. And, of course, Israel itself is never alone, in spite of the popular victim myth it constantly proliferates. It has always been backed up, cheered on, and defended by successive U.S. administrations who have willingly to the bewilderment of many valued Israel’s political designs and territorial ambitions over America’s own national security.
The mission therefore, has always been to separate individual Arab countries from the pack, to pressure them, allure them, or beat them senseless (as in the cases of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian leadership) until a peace deal on Israeli terms is finally reached.
But Syria and Lebanon have thus far maintained a different dynamic in their dealings with Israel.
To begin with, Lebanese resistance demonstrated that Israel would only honor international law if forced to do so. The partial Israeli implementation of UN resolution 425 and its forced withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 are evidence of that claim.
To Israel, that was a very dangerous and alarming precedent. Almost immediately after Israel’s withdrawal, I wrote an article predicting a Palestinian uprising that would capitalize on the vigor and dynamism Palestinians extracted from the Lebanese victory. The Intifada actualized shortly thereafter, and its high-flying banners at the time were predominantly Hezbollah slogans. Connect the dots.
Israel left Lebanon with undeniable humiliation. A major source of embarrassment, aside from the military defeat, was leaving Lebanon an empty stage for a political reconfiguration not of Israel’s creation. (Recall the phony elections Israel held after it occupied most of Lebanon in 1982, when they installed the “elected” Phalangist leader Bashir Jumail, who was later assassinated. Jumail was given the task of ruling over a proxy country to be run from Tel Aviv.)
But what’s in it for the United States? The Bush administration has no business in Lebanon whatsoever. There are no natural resources to exploit, no imperial domains to be protected, and no mock battles against terrorism to be fought. Lebanon has been a stable country (despite all the political and sectarian skirmishes) that has enjoyed a reasonably democratic experience and by far the freest press in the Arab world.
However, thanks to pro-Israeli neoconservative elements in Washington, the Bush administration is working on the false assumption that Syria is the source of regional tension and must be “stabilized” or taken out.
The neoconservatives found many willing allies among Lebanese dissidents who agreed to play along (a repeat of the Iraqi opposition’s role in Washington prior to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government) in order to end Syria’s role in Lebanon. Together, they helped forge the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003. With the help of these allies, Washington has been sending all kinds of signals, warning that Iraq’s fate could very well be revisited on Syria.
But there is a dichotomy here. While there is a great deal of interest in seeing Syria and Lebanon forced to talk peace on Israeli terms, with an active crowd in Washington orchestrating and manipulating U.S. support, there are not enough funds nor troops (nor popular support, even though that is more manageable) to carry out a conventional military undertaking in Damascus.
And as past American interventions, mainly in Central America, have taught us, when direct military involvement cannot be sold to the public or sustained politically or financially, it’s time for clandestine operations. Seymour Hersh’s articles revealing U.S. covert operations in Iran confirmed the suspicions of many that the U.S. government is trying to find other means to confront Iran and thus purge one of Israel’s last standing foes.
The killing of Rafik al-Hariri will be exploited by those who want Israel to be the only regional power broker. Hariri’s assassination is the kind of provocation that precedes a major military undertaking or political reshuffling. The latter is the most likely prospect for now, and the U.S. move to recall its ambassador from Syria "for urgent consultations," coupled with the organized anti-Syria campaign, will serve that goal.
One must have no illusions that Syria’s presence in Lebanon is for the sake of Lebanon. Far from it. But Damascus is terrified at the possibility that its withdrawal from Lebanon could risk the loss of a strategic ally. Moreover, the return of instability to the tiny Arab republic adjacent to Syria will turn the tables in any future peace talks. Israel will hold all the cards.
The Lebanese people have the right to demand and expect full sovereignty. Yet it would be a tragedy if Lebanon found itself free from an Arab neighbor only to fall under the grip of an alien foe that has killed tens of thousands of Lebanese over the years.
It is a difficult position for Lebanon as well as Syria, which finds itself at the mercy of a hungry predator ready to make his final leap.
We might never know who is responsible for Hariri’s death, but it will almost certainly cultivate political turmoil that benefits only Israel.