The Valentine’s Day massacre that shook downtown Beirut on Monday, killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and at least a dozen others, is bad news not just for Lebanon but also for the region.
Hariri, who had dominated Lebanon’s politics since the end of the civil war there in 1990, was killed when a massive 650-pound car bomb exploded under his motorcade as it passed along the Beirut corniche, in the heart of the city that he helped to rebuild after Lebanon’s 15-year conflict. Six bodyguards and at least seven bystanders were killed, and more than 100 were wounded in the blast, which set the Beirut waterfront ablaze for hours.
As was apparent from the venue chosen for the attack, the assassins were targeting not only the portly, 60-year-old billionaire politician, and not only his legacy of reconstruction, but also the very spirit of chutzpah in which Beirut somehow presumed to be picking up where it left off three decades ago and resuming its historic role as the banker-cum-playground of the Arab world.
Who wanted Hariri dead? Evidence was scant in the first days after the blast, but most fingers were pointed at the Assad regime in Damascus. Syria denied responsibility vigorously, and several senior Syrian officials, along with their Iranian allies, couldn’t resist blaming Israel. Credit was also claimed by an unknown and not very believable anti-Saudi organization, leading some observers to speculate that Al Qaeda was involved. Hariri had built his business fortune in Saudi Arabia as an ally of its royal family, a prime target of Al Qaeda ire.
Still, for most observers here and in the West — as well as in Lebanon itself — the essential questions were who had the most to gain, and who would lose, from Hariri’s death. The answer to the first, most agreed, was Damascus. The answer to the second was everyone else — unless the assassination backfires.
The Ba’ath regime in Syria has a long history of eliminating, usually by proxy, troublesome Lebanese leaders who opposed its decades-long drive for hegemony there, including former Christian leader Bashir Gemayel and onetime Druse leader Kamal Jumblatt.
Hariri served as prime minister for 10 years on and off, initially collaborating with the Syrians. He resigned last October in protest of Syria’s crudely engineered extension of the presidency of Emile Lahoud, a Christian allied to Damascus. Since then, Hariri had emerged as the top leader of Lebanon’s growing, trans-confessional, mainstream opposition to Syrian schemes. He was planning on leading this ticket to a comeback in Lebanon’s May 2005 elections.
Hariri’s campaign drew encouragement from the rare American-French collaboration that produced United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 last fall, demanding that Syria leave Lebanon. Beirut’s current, Syrian-backed government under Prime Minister Omar Karami responded by calling Hariri a traitor and a collaborator with Israel, forcing him to move under heavy guard. His death is likely to be seen as a warning to all the anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon, whatever their complaint. It is also an indication that the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus, increasingly exasperated with its Lebanese opposition, is digging in its heels.
But there is more to the Syria angle. The American-engineered U.N. assault on the Syrian presence in Lebanon is part and parcel of Washington’s broader, post-9/11 complaint about Damascus, particularly its support for the anti-American forces leading the insurrection in Iraq. Paradoxically, it was the administration of the senior George Bush that had signaled to the senior Assad in 1990 that he could take over Lebanon, as a kind of down payment for his agreement to let Syrian forces participate — albeit passively — alongside American forces in the first Iraq war the following year.
Syria’s current heavy influence in Lebanon includes its sponsorship of Hezbollah, the Shi’ite group that is a combination political party, terrorist organization, proxy for Iran and effective ruler over Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. Lately Hezbollah has been deeply involved in supporting extremist Palestinian organizations that defy the pragmatic policies of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Hezbollah ranks high on Israel’s and America’s terrorist enemies list.
Accordingly, any Lebanese escalation following the Hariri assassination — whether military, political or old-style Levantine intrigue — is liable to draw in Israel and the United States. Further, if the car bombing sparks a new terrorist war in Beirut, then Syria is liable to tighten rather than loosen its grip. The Shi’ite Hezbollah, which represents Lebanon’s largest ethno-religious group and is already drawing encouragement from the emerging Shi’ite victory in Iraq, will be strengthened and emboldened.
Lebanon’s civil war nearly destroyed the country between 1975 and 1990 and left the Syrians entrenched as big-brother caretakers. Anarchy reigned. Israel invaded in 1982, then settled down for a long and counterproductive occupation of the country’s lawless south. America and several European countries sent in troops, losing hundreds in attacks engineered by Iran and by Hezbollah.
Some Western observers were speculating this week that the Hariri killing could weaken Damascus by stiffening Lebanese opposition and increasing the Assad regime’s diplomatic isolation. But that scenario could be unrealistically hopeful. If the assassination can’t be pinned convincingly on a fringe terrorist or organized-crime group, and ends up plunging the country back into its pre-1990 mayhem, the resulting dynamic — even if it remains essentially local — could look at least as complicated as in the 1970s and 1980s.
The current reality in the Middle East features Al Qaeda terrorism, an extremely fragile Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, an Iraq that is about to become the first Shi’ite Arab state in several hundred years — with the American occupiers fighting an intractable Sunni insurrection — and a growing confrontation between America and Iran. A new round of bloodletting in Lebanon is all we need.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He currently co-edits bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org.