BEIRUT -- The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive bombing in central Beirut last Monday is first and foremost a profound tragedy for Lebanon - but its shockwaves have already started rippling out beyond the country and into neighboring Syria, and may be heading further afield in the Middle East.
With growing anger and suspicion about Syrian involvement in the assassination the Syrian-Lebanese relationship has now become the crucible for testing new forms of American and Western political intervention in the Arab world. The post-Hariri-assassination political vortex in Lebanon and Syria could provide lessons about how indigenous forces resist or challenge powerful indigenous governments, and how far Western pressure can bring about changes in the behavior of Arab regimes. The accusing finger pointed at powerful neighbor Syria is the result of a long history of involvement in Lebanon - the most recent of which was its crude pressure to extend the rule of its ally, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. Syrian troops had entered Lebanon in 1976 to prevent the country from totally disintegrating during the civil war, and have remained ever since with Arab League and Lebanese government approval. Syria played a strong role in preserving the country's unity and stability after the 15-year-long civil war ended in 1990. Though most Lebanese appreciate this assistance, many would now prefer that the Syrians leave the country for the Lebanese to govern.
Pent-up anger against Syria has been building up among many Lebanese for years. The growing opposition maintained that Syria's behind-the-scenes dominance of Lebanese domestic politics created a stalemate situation, in which the public sector was increasingly defined by mediocrity, corruption, and lassitude. Profits made by Syrian elite out of their privileged position in Lebanon do not endear them either to the Lebanese. A faster Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is widely seen as the key to Lebanon's next surge forward in its national development drive.
Increasingly sharp and acerbic criticism demanded the withdrawal of the 14,000 Syrian troops still in Lebanon, and specifically ending the Syrian intelligence services' political manipulations and controls in the country. The growing coalition of varied opposition forces was further bolstered by the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1559 in early September, demanding the immediate and full withdrawal of all "foreign" forces from Lebanon -- a clear reference to the Syrians. In the last five months since Syria forcefully engineered an unusual three-year extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term, more Lebanese voices, beyond the traditional Christian-led opposition, have asked the Syrians to withdraw fully from the country. The abruptness of Lahoud's term extension last September resulted in Hariri's resignation as prime minister. During his tenure, Hariri had maintained good, close working relations with the Syrians. However, in recent months, he had spoken out more clearly about the need for a faster Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
The full political and diplomatic impact of his assassination will likely be significant in the months ahead. The general political attitude here -- and, perhaps as importantly, among American and other Western officials -- seems to be that while there is no proof of Syrian complicity in the Hariri assassination, the Damascus regime (and its hand-picked Lebanese client government) must be held responsible for allowing the development of the contentious political environment in which the killing occurred. Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday before Congress that Syria's presence in Lebanon was a "destabilizing" factor. Just hours after Hariri's death, the Lebanese opposition blamed Syria and also held the Lebanese government responsible, to the extent of asking it not to participate in Hariri's funeral Wednesday. The funeral turned into a dramatic political manifestation of anti-Syrian sentiment, including calls for the Syrian-installed Lebanese government to resign because its legitimacy had been badly frayed. The opposition's speedy accusations against Syria were matched blow-by-blow by Damascus' equally swift rejection of the accusations, using an unprecedented array of its officials who spoke to the mass media simultaneously on three continents.
Not losing a beat, the US State Department and White House weighed in at the same moment, linking Hariri's killing with the need for total Lebanese sovereignty from Syrian influence and control, and recalling its ambassador from Damascus for consultations. US Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East William Burns said in Beirut Wednesday that these consultations would include a review of how the US could apply more sanctions on Syria than it is already enforcing via the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. The killing immediately shifted the political center of gravity from the domestic politics of Lebanon to two other increasingly testy relationships, focused on Damascus rather than Beirut. The first is the troubled and increasingly confrontational relationship between Syria and Lebanon; the other is the intensifying tussle between Syria and an American-French-led group of Western countries that are pressuring the Damascus government bilaterally and through the UN Security Council. The Western pressure aims variously to speed up its withdrawal from Lebanon, cooperate more effectively on restoring security inside Iraq, stop its support for Hizbullah and Palestinian "rejectionist" groups that resist current peace-making terms with Israel, and desist from alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
A new layer of complexity was added to this stage Wednesday, when Syria and Iran announced that they were forming a strategic alliance to confront the threats against them both -- threats, or at least diplomatic pressures, that emanate primarily from the United States, and also from Israel.
The events of the past week have unleashed political forces that could transform both Lebanon and, via the Syrian connection, other parts of the Middle East. The already intense backlash to the assassination may well lead to an accelerated Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and faster reform movements inside both Lebanon and Syria. It might also embolden the United States and other Western powers, working unilaterally and through the UN, to continue exerting pressure on Syria and also on other states where policy changes are sought, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Egypt.
Despite the quick accusations against Syria, the regime in Damascus, like all other accused parties, will get its moment in the court of public opinion, and in the deliberations of the UN Security Council, where the contested Syrian-Lebanese relationship is increasingly likely to be debated, resolved or fought out.
People here fear that Hariri's killing may trigger new incidents of violence, plunging the country back into chronic strife. That is probably unlikely, given the consensus among Lebanese that the civil war solved nothing and only caused immense harm. The majority of Lebanese hope that the damage done already will now push the Syrian and Lebanese governments to accept a speedy Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in order to allow the Lebanese to reconfigure their political governance system according to their own wishes. If that happens, further changes are then likely to follow inside Syria itself, where serious political and economic reform could have a profound impact on the entire region, through Syrian linkages with the Palestinians, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
Whichever way the events turn the tremor set in motion by the assassination in Beirut is set to rumble through the Middle East and perhaps reorder its relations with the rest of the world.
By Rami G. Khouri
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.