More than three years after the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, charges and counter-charges over alleged Syrian responsibility continue to haunt the Middle East. But the outcome of the investigation into the killing of a leader who stood up to Syrian influence in his country may yet be decided in the realm of politics. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a senior Republican who recently visited Syria, last week publicly suggested that the U.N. inquiry into Hariri's killing could be reduced in scope in exchange for greater security and political cooperation from Damascus in key areas of U.S. concern. Specter said he had been told by King Abdullah of Jordan that "the item that is most on the mind of President Bashar Assad is the action of the international tribunal which could lead to his indictment." But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quickly slapped down Specter's proposal: "I don't think that it would be appropriate to suggest that we might be willing to limit the scope of this tribunal on the assassination of Rafik Hariri ... because it might somehow implicate either the regime or the Assad family," she said.
But just who will be implicated by the U.N. inquiry remains something of a mystery, despite the widespread speculation that Damascus had a hand in Hariri's killing. Last week, a star witness in the ongoing probe suddenly vanished while under French police protection. The complicated tale of the witness, identified as the chauffeur to a Syrian general suspected of involvement in planning the bomb attack that killed Hariri and 22 others, underscores some of the many problems that have surrounded the investigation. The French newspaper Le Figaro reports that evidence quickly emerged that the witness had been paid to implicate Syria in the affair, and his testimony was discredited. But his disappearance has generated headlines in France, as his whereabouts and fate remain a mystery.
In asking the U.N. Security Council for an extension of the mandate of his probe, investigator Daniel Bellemare said recently that evidence pointed to a "criminal network" being responsible for the "politically motivated" killing of Hariri. The network had pre-existed Hariri's murder, Bellemare said, and it continued to exist for some period afterward.
Following the announcement, Damascus expressed satisfaction that the investigator had not named Syria as explicitly behind the killing. Top members of the regime have long been widely viewed as suspects an allegation Damascus has always denied. The Syrian government also accused the U.S. and its allies of using the Hariri inquiry as a tool to pressure Damascus, along with a series of unilateral sanctions recently imposed by Washington on key figures linked to the regime.
Hariri's 2005 assassination proved to be a major turning point in Lebanese politics, setting the stage for the current stalemate as the U.S.-backed government and the Syrian-backed opposition are unable to agree on a new President. Following the murder, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Beirut and other cities to demand the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had been garrisoned in the country for decades, as Damascus acted as the dominant influence in Lebanese politics. Despite the withdrawal of its troops and the creation of the pro-Western government, Syria has continued to exert political influence through Hizballah, Lebanon's largest political party also backed by Iran, and its Christian allies under General Michel Aoun.
U.S. policy on Syria for most of the Bush Administration's tenure has been one of malign neglect, although lately Washington has been imposing greater political and economic pressure in the hope of changing Syrian behavior in Lebanon, as well as its role as a transit route for Iraqi insurgents and its support for Palestinian militants. The Syrian regime appears unmoved. And that's unlikely to change for the remainder of the Bush Administration's tenure.