Why Syria Feels the Heat from a Beirut Bombing

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BEIRUT: Rescue workers search for survivors after a deadly bomb attack

There is no evidence, thus far, linking any specific suspect to Monday's assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. But as fears sweep Beirut of a resumption, after a 15-year timeout, of the bloody civil war that began in 1975, Syria and its allies in the Lebanese government are already taking the heat. Lebanese opposition parties have openly accused pro-Syrian politicians in Beirut of complicity in or authorship of the crime, and have warned President Emil Lahoud and other members of his government to stay away from Wednesday's funeral lest their presence provoke violence. The U.S. responded to the killing by demanding Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and by summoning home its Damascus ambassador in order to express its “profound outrage” over Hariri's death. The Bush administration has stopped short of directly accusing Syria of complicity, although it has not hidden the obvious implications of its actions — and has warned that it holds Syria responsible because of its domination of Lebanon.

Syria has professed innocence and President Bashar al-Assad condemned Hariri's killing as a “horrible terrorist act,” but that has not dimmed ire of Lebanese opposition groups and the Bush administration. Damascus had been hard at work in recent months maneuvering to maintain its fraying control over the fate of a neighboring country it has treated more like a restive province over the past three decades. Hariri, a one-time ally of Syria, had symbolized the best hope of a growing opposition movement in Lebanon to press for Syrian withdrawal. Although he had carefully nurtured his own relationship with Damascus during his tenure as Prime Minister, Hariri had decisively broken with Syria last October when he resigned in protest at efforts to alter Lebanon's constitution, at Syria's behest, to allow the pro-Syrian president Emil Lahoud to serve a further three years. He quit soon after voting for the change demanded by Syria.

Pro-Syria politicians blamed Hariri, well-connected in Arab capitals and a close friend of France's president Jacques Chirac, for orchestrating the passage earlier this year of UN Security Council resolution 1559, which demands the withdrawal of the 15,000 Syrian troops that remain in Lebanon — Syrian forces first arrived in 1976, eventually enforcing a fragile peace between rival Lebanese factions and armed Palestinian refugees, and running the country as Syria's own fiefdom ever since. New Lebanese elections are scheduled for May, and Hariri had been under mounting pressure to take the lead in an opposition campaign to rally a vote for ousting Syria.

Although the longtime Saudi-associated billionaire had many enemies, Syria's accusers say none benefit as much from Hariri's slaying as those in Damascus who want to maintain a stranglehold over Lebanon. The “confession” broadcast on Lebanese TV, in which a man later identified as a Palestinian refugee purported to take responsibility for the killing in the name of a Qaeda-linked jihad against “Greater Syria,” was quickly dismissed within the region as a clumsy fraud designed to draw attention away from the real killers.

If that’s true, blaming a “Palestinian extremist” may have been another crude attempt to underscore Syria's claim to be protecting Lebanon's security. There remains considerable concern in Lebanon that current moves to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could leave almost a half million Palestinian refugees to be settled permanently in Lebanon, a country of less than 4 million people — a prospect that could significantly destabilize the already fragile ethnic and sectarian balance. (Despite their fierce differences, the political factions representing Lebanon's Maronite Christians, Shiites and Sunnis have tended to concur in their enmity towards the Palestinian refugees, who remain confined to squalid camps on the margins of Lebanon's major cities.)

Hariri's murder could once again unleash the violent centrifugal forces that originally brought Syria in. The postwar political order has sought to preserve a fragile balance among the warlords on all sides by reserving the presidency for a Christian, the prime minister's job for a Sunni Muslim and the role of Speaker of Parliament for a Shiite. Hariri was a Sunni, of course, but many of the remaining Sunni leadership are historically close to Syria, as is the current Christian president, Emil Lahoud — although other Christian politicians are more critical of Syria. The Shiites, some of whom have enjoyed Syrian backing, may also be the fastest growing group in Lebanon, their share of the population now possibly greater than their share of the power arrangements. And then there are the Palestinians, a refugee population sustained by visions of returning to homes in towns and villages in Israel that no longer exist, impoverished, enraged and more than likely to be the big losers of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The postwar order among these groups has been fragile — they fought themselves to exhaustion, and then under Syria's heavy hand took a breather and found ways to coexist. But the final shape of the Lebanese political order has never been concluded, a proper dialogue among Lebanon's diverse factions prevented, over the years, by perennial crises in the form of the civil war, the Israeli invasion and the Syrian occupation.

Syria has cultivated politicians from all ends of the sectarian divide, while also dominating Lebanon's own intelligence and security services. But it is more than some nostalgic “Greater Syria” concept that has driven Damascus to keep a tight hold on affairs in Lebanon. There are certainly economic benefits for Syria to maintain control over its economically dynamic neighbor whose progress and integration into the world economy puts Syria's own decrepit economy to shame. But Lebanon's primary importance to Damascus is its value as a strategic trump card. The organizing principle of Syrian foreign policy over the past four decades has been to find ways of pressuring Israel to return the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the war of 1967. Syria's presence in Lebanon, and particularly its support for the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, became its key strategic bargaining chips with Israel — although Syria's own mostly obsolete Soviet-equipped military was no match for the Israeli Defense Force, its Lebanese proxies have posed a constant security on Israel's northern border for the past quarter century. Losing Lebanon would strip a regime already dangerously isolated within the Arab world of the last of its leverage in dealing with Israel.

If some in the Syrian regime had calculated that killing Hariri would send a message of that Syria was the indispensable guarantor of peace, that would have been a dangerous miscalculation — a panicky response to mounting pressure to leave Lebanon to the Lebanese. If anything, now, that pressure is likely to grow. But the government in Damascus, or some elements of it, may well be feeling cause for panic. Syria is isolated diplomatically and under fire from the Bush administration, which accuses Damascus of doing too little to curb the flow of men and money to insurgents in Iraq, and demands an end to Syria's backing for Hezbollah and the Palestinian militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Domestically, its stagnant economy raises the pressure on a regime dominated by a small ethnic minority (the Allawites) trading on a long bankrupted Baathist ideology. Its international economic and diplomatic isolation, combined with the strategic blow of losing its hold on Lebanon while Israel and the Palestinians restart their peace process could leave the regime dangerously vulnerable to gradual internal collapse.

If Syria was involved, the move would represent an act of uncharacteristically brazen recklessness on the part of a regime instinctively cautious in matters involving its own survival. Syria had reportedly been directly warned by both France and the U.S. in recent weeks to refrain from intervening in Lebanese politics in the run-up to May's elections. Now, it has become the focus of discussion in response to the Hariri killing at the UN Security Council. If Damascus had no hand in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, then it has an overwhelming interest in finding the real killer as soon as possible.