Bashar al-Assad's Lebanon Gamble

By: William Harris _ Middle East Quarterly
31/7/05: After almost three decades of occupation, Syrian troops exited Lebanon in April 2005. International pressure for Syrian withdrawal resulted from a cascading series of Syrian miscalculations. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's August 2004 decision to force an extended term for Lebanon's sitting president galvanized the opposition. Misreading the international atmosphere paved the way for escalating diplomatic sanctions. The February 14, 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri caused anti-Syrian sentiment to boil over.

The decision will have as profound an impact upon Syria as Lebanon. Command of Lebanon has long been fundamental to Syrian regional prestige and the Syrian regime's internal staying power. For Bashar al-Assad, the loss of command in Beirut may mark a psychological tipping point toward overall erosion of his authority.

A Regime Dependent on Occupation?
Syrian troops moved into Lebanon in 1976, a year after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. The George H.W. Bush administration tacitly permitted Syria to "stabilize" its western neighbor by maintaining troops there regardless of redeployment commitments made in the 1989 Ta‘if agreement.[1] For years after, up to 30,000 Syrian soldiers remained in Lebanon although this number later declined as Damascus became more confident of its intelligence and security penetration of Lebanon.

Lebanese sovereignty took a back seat to Syrian interests. Ghazi Kan‘an, an ‘Alawite and chief of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, and his Sunni deputy and replacement, Rustum Ghazali, behaved like colonial high commissioners. The Syrian regime determined who filled the Lebanese government's top positions, supervised its foreign policy, and manipulated its elections. Lebanese banks offered Syria vital access to outside financial networks while smuggling, protection rackets, and employment of Syrian workers in Lebanon threw an economic lifeline to Syria.

In strategic terms, Lebanon gave Syria space to influence Islamist and terrorist organizations outside Syrian territory while maintaining deniability. The Syrian regime could also amplify its importance with its "one people in two states" campaign, coordinating Syrian and Lebanese policy. Such amplification was magnified by Syria's own isolation. Deprived of a superpower patron upon the demise of the Soviet Union, Damascus's only serious ally for the past decade has been Tehran, a poor substitute for Moscow. The Egyptian and Saudi regimes have maintained decent interactions with Damascus, but their conservative inclinations and links with Washington make their lip service to Arab solidarity of little use to the Syrians. The Jordanian monarchy resents Syrian regional pretensions, having experienced a Syrian invasion in 1970, and more recent cross-border infiltration of Islamist terrorists, including an April 2004 incident, in which infiltrators from Syria sought to stage a mass-casualty chemical attack in Amman.[2]

While the late president, Hafez al-Assad, laid down Syrian strategy, his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, has for the past five years worked to sustain his father's "command and control" apparatus and regional ambitions. He has sought to bolster Syria's viability with selective linkage to the global economy. While some analysts suggest that the Syrian government is pursuing the Chinese and Malaysian models of economic liberalization before easing political controls, the regime's backwardness and Bashar's emphasis on the constants of authoritarianism undercut such parallels.[3]

Internally, Syria is weak. The Syrian people have lower per capita income than their neighbors—US$1,130 per capita in 2002 compared with $1,760 in Jordan, $3,900 in Lebanon, $2,500 in Turkey, and over $16,000 in Israel.[4] Occupying Lebanon allowed the Syrian regime a way to bypass reforms it may not be able to make. For Assad to trim the bloated public sector would undercut the regime's support base. Opening the Syrian economy would erode authoritarian controls. But failure to do so will leave Syria poorly placed to handle demographic, social, and environmental challenges. Syrian leaders have no idea how to handle their dilemma. The dismal outlook has fortified the prevailing siege mentality in both domestic and foreign policy.

Bashar al-Assad's regime flirted with reform soon after June 2000 but quickly ended the Damascus Spring when dissent grew too bold. Hope for Syria to make good on its stated desire for Arab-Israeli peace evaporated when, during the May 2001 papal visit to Damascus, Bashar launched into an anti-Semitic tirade.[5] At the March 2002 Arab summit in Beirut, he endorsed suicide bombings within Israel.[6]

Bashar's early promises of reform in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship also proved fleeting. He promised the Lebanese a more equal relationship on taking office, and in his inauguration speech, highlighted Lebanese-Syrian relations as "a model of the relationship between two Arab countries" albeit one where the "model is not yet perfected and needs a lot of effort to become ideal and achieve joint interests in a way that answers the aspirations of the two countries."[7] Just four years later, he overrode Lebanon's constitution to extend the term of his client, Lebanese president Emile Lahoud whose single permissible six-year term ended in November 2004.

Belief in Syrian prestige also undercuts the Syrian ability to consider Lebanon equal. For today's Syrian leaders, Damascus is as much the pan-Arab citadel of steadfastness (qil`at as-sumud wa't-tasaddi) against Israel and the West as it was in the 1960s. The Syrian regime, which officially subscribes to the pan-Arab chauvinism of Baathism, looks back through the centuries to the glory days of Damascus under the Umayyads (661-750) and Salah ad-Din (d. 1193), claims moral leadership in promoting Arab causes, and parades a self-righteousness that even Islamists struggle to match. Within the Levant, Syrian Baathists find Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian autonomy barely tolerable. From the late Ottoman period onward, Syrian Arab nationalists have viewed Lebanon and Palestine as part of a Bilad ash-sham (Greater Syria).[8] Syrian leaders considered the western side of the Fertile Crescent to be the Syrian backyard and Damascus, the region's rightful political center. On this basis, Syria refused to exchange embassies with Lebanon, a curious situation given the supposed friendship between the two neighbors.

The Syrian Grip on Lebanon
Upon his death in June 2000, Hafez al-Assad bequeathed his son consolidated Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Syrian allies dominated all Lebanon's sectarian communities. Among the Christians, these included Lahoud, Lebanese army commander Michel Suleiman, Suleiman Tony Frangieh, and the Murr family. Syria's proxy among the Tripoli Sunnis was `Umar Karami, prime minister between 1990 and 1992. Parliamentary speaker Nabih Birri represented Syrian interests within the Shi‘ite community. Lebanese politicians competed for Syrian favors within and among the communities. Shi‘ite and Sunni Muslim leaders coordinated tightly with Damascus. Active opposition to Syrian determination of Lebanese affairs was restricted to a few Christian personalities with popular followings but little clout, such as Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and the exiled Michel Aoun.

Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad practiced divide-and-rule in the best traditions of the Romans and nineteenth-century European imperialists. While Hafez al-Assad died less than three weeks following the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the Syrian penetration and co-option of the Lebanese bureaucracy, security agencies, and political elite made the uniformed presence increasingly redundant. A procession of Syrian-Lebanese agreements, dictated by Damascus, provided the mechanisms for Syria to steer Lebanese institutions. These included the Orwellian May 1991 treaty of brotherhood, cooperation, and coordination; the September 1991 defense and security pact; September 1993 economic and social accords; and a September 1994 arrangement for Syria to take the lion's share of the Orontes river waters. The brotherhood treaty introduced a semi-federal higher council of Syrian and Lebanese leaders, effectively to stand above the Lebanese government.

During Bashar al-Assad's first eighteen months, events in Lebanon paralleled those within Syria—a limited political relaxation, perhaps to measure dissent, followed by a tough crackdown.[9] The Israeli withdrawal and the succession in Syria encouraged Lebanese public questioning of Syrian actions and involvement in Lebanon. For the first time since 1990, both Druze and Muslims joined the criticism. For example, ‘Aliah al-Sulh, daughter of independent Lebanon's first prime minister Riyadh al-Sulh, wrote an editorial highly critical of Syria.[10] In September 2000, the Council of Maronite Bishops issued a sharp condemnation of the Syrian presence,[11] and in following months, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt repeatedly attacked Syrian interference in Lebanese domestic politics.[12] Jumblatt's initiative, as a senior non-Christian Syrian ally, meant Lebanese grumblings could no longer be dismissed as Christian recidivism stirred by Israel.

As the opposition coalesced in Lebanon, Washington turned a blind eye. The Syrian regime interpreted Washington's lack of interest as a green light to crack down. The critical moment came in March 2001 when Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior officials refused to meet Maronite patriarch Sfeir during his visit to Washington. In August 2001, when Sfeir visited Jumblatt amid large crowds to launch again Lebanon's old Maronite-Druze partnership, Lahoud's Syrian-backed regime struck, arresting hundreds of activists. Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlas, delivering Bashar's address at an officers' graduation ceremony, announced that Damascus "stands beside President Lahoud and brotherly Lebanese army commander General Michel Suleiman" in facing "suspicious movements whose linkage with foreign elements hostile to Lebanon and the Arab nation has been confirmed."[13]

Bashar sent Syrian military reinforcements into Lebanon. While sometimes viewed by Western analysts as a potential reformer, Bashar showed himself to be the patron behind Lahoud's crackdown. Old guard Syrian personalities such as Vice-President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam had little to do with Lahoud. Khaddam was principally associated with Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who knew nothing about the security move.[14] These circumstances lend credence to Middle East Intelligence Bulletin editor Gary Gambill's interpretation that Bashar, rather than any Syrian old guard, was the terminator of the 2000-01 relaxations in Beirut and Damascus.[15]

Repression set the tone for the remainder of Lahoud's first presidential term. The Syrian president controlled the Lebanese through three organizations: the Syrian military intelligence network based at Anjar in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley; Lahoud's security machine, with the head of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, Jamil al-Sayyid, as Syria's leading Lebanese gate-keeper; and a close liaison with Hezbollah, which preserved a sophisticated paramilitary apparatus independent of Lebanese state control. Syria's patronage of the two main Shi‘ite political parties, the Islamist Hezbollah and the more secular-minded Amal, ensured that it had little trouble with Shi‘ite Muslims, one-third of Lebanon's population, even if ordinary Shi‘ites had no love for Syrian troops and laborers.

Lahoud was more subservient to the Syrian president than Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, whom Bashar treats as close advisor if not mentor. Bashar's father, who viewed Hezbollah purely as an instrument, would never have approved such a relationship. Bashar endorsed Hezbollah's desire to remain a regional player after the Israeli withdrawal. To facilitate continued proxy confrontation with Israel, Syria and Hezbollah highlighted Sheba'a Farms, a slither of land now claimed as Lebanese but occupied by Israel since 1967. The United Nations, which certified Israel's May 2000 withdrawal as complete, defined the Sheba'a farms as Syrian territory, covered by Israeli-Syrian cease-fire arrangements.[16] Undeterred, Hezbollah flaunted the issue as justification for its state-within-the-state and for further resistance against Israel.

Lebanon's Sunni Muslim prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, had little sympathy for Hezbollah's ambitions, which he feared might harm Lebanon's economy, but he could do nothing. As a Sunni politician, he had little influence on Shi‘ites beyond the commercial bourgeoisie.

Bashar did not draw any lessons about Syrian support for Hezbollah from the 9-11 attacks. Syrian leaders realized that they needed to cooperate with Washington vis-à-vis Al-Qaeda, whose operations against the West they understood to be dangerous to Arab interests, but otherwise, they saw no reason not to proceed with business as usual. Bashar failed to appreciate that Washington's war on terrorism included Hezbollah. Neither U.S. policymakers nor military officials had forgotten the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. marines. Hezbollah's support for the Palestinian uprising from 2000 on and cheering of escalating suicide bombings against Israel in 2002 also caused the Bush administration to pay sharper attention to the Syrian-Hezbollah nexus.

Nonetheless, the U.S. occupation of Iraq confirmed to the Syrians the judiciousness of their policy. They saw their continued occupation of Lebanon as both granting strategic depth and as an important diplomatic and political card. The willingness of the French foreign ministry and the Vatican to engage Hezbollah also emboldened Bashar. In 2004, Washington's woes in Iraq and the continuing trans-Atlantic rift heightened the Syrian regime's confidence that it would not face a serious challenge to its policies.

The Growing Crisis
As Lahoud's term neared its end, Damascus became more irritated with Lebanese prime minister Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's rejection of an extension. The Syrian regime saw no reason to experiment with elevating another Maronite client to the presidency, especially as any successor would lack Lahoud's security experience. As Lebanese army chief in the early 1990s, Lahoud restructured Lebanon's security apparatus, allowing its thorough subordination to Syria.

On August 27, 2004, optimistic that Washington would pay the price for Syria's grace and favor in Iraq, Bashar summoned Hariri to Damascus and ordered him to have the Lebanese parliament change the constitution to validate an additional three years for Lahoud. As Hariri related to Jumblatt, Bashar said, "You will go and make the extension because I am Lahoud."[17] Bashar brushed aside appeals from the White House and French president Jacques Chirac for a regular election in the Lebanese parliament for a new president. Hariri told a variety of sources that Bashar threatened "to break Lebanon over his [Hariri's] and Jumblatt's heads" if frustrated in his desire to prolong Lahoud's administration.[18]

The scene was a throwback to the crudity of Nazi Germany's late 1930s dealings with Czechoslovakia and Austria. The humiliated Hariri, who was also required to call on Syria's military intelligence chief in Lebanon, had the Lebanese government approve the constitutional amendment in a ten-minute session.[19] Lebanon's 128-member parliament, well padded with Syrian allies, produced the requisite two-thirds majority. Intimidation and death threats lowered the number of opponents from an initial 50 to 29.[20]

As the Syrian government tightened the screws on Lebanon, it believed that its limited cooperation against Al-Qaeda immunized it from anything more than token criticism by the West. It was wrong. Both Washington and Paris had grown frustrated with Damascus.

The Syrian government's consolidation of power in Lebanon directly challenged President Bush's Middle East democratization policy. The Syrian government underestimated the seriousness with which Washington viewed Hezbollah, a militant Islamist organization that, until 9-11, had killed more Americans than any other. Since 9-11, the Bush administration has had little tolerance for Syrian double gaming over "terrorism."[21] Washington had also grown increasingly concerned about the Syrian regime's regional role following the ouster of Saddam. Soon after U.S.-led forces occupied Iraq, Syria became a clandestine channel for foreign jihadists from Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, to enter Iraq.[22] In June 2003, U.S. troops clashed with Syrian border guards south of al-Qa'im.[23] In late September 2003, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said that of the 248 captured foreign fighters held in Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition, 121 were from Syria.[24] Through 2004, the Syrian government sought to trade compliance in Iraq for U.S. indulgence in Lebanon and Arab-Israeli affairs. But despite ideological disagreements within the U.S. administration, neither the State Department nor the Pentagon had any intention to rubber-stamp what in effect was a Syrian coup in Lebanon.

The French government wanted an understanding with Assad involving a degree of Lebanese independence and respect for French influence in Beirut, in exchange for French buttressing of Syria's position in the Levant.[25] Syria expected the latter without conceding the former. France welcomed Bashar on a state visit, forgave Syrian debts, and sponsored Syria in negotiations for an advantageous trade arrangement with the European Union. By continuing to insist on Lahoud's extension, Bashar embarrassed Chirac, who until then had subtly softened U.S. criticism of Syria.

On September 2, 2004, the United States and France sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, disbandment of remaining militias—most notably the armed wing of Hezbollah—and holding a Lebanese presidential election free from external pressure. To ensure passage, Resolution 1559 did not mention Syria by name, but the target was clear.[26] Syrian officials spoke of U.S. "betrayal,"[27] but their clumsy bid to exploit instability in Iraq for profit in the Levant had come unstuck.

Syrian and Lebanese officials scorned the resolution. The U.N. Secretary General's October 1 report on its implementation found the Syrian and Lebanese regimes in breach of all its provisions.[28]

Chirac sent diplomatic signals of his displeasure. On December 3, 2004, he welcomed Jumblatt in Paris. The Syrian and Lebanese regimes could not miss the symbolism as they had been cracking down on Lebanese Druze for the previous three months.[29] In particular, Lebanese commentators suspected Syrian responsibility for the October 1 attempt to assassinate Jumblatt's ally and associate, Marwan Hamade.[30]

There is no sign that Syria's leaders, Bashar or anyone else, weighed the strategic implications of defying the United States and France. Syria might easily have sidestepped trouble by selecting another proxy to be Lebanese president. While Hafez al-Assad had in 1995 extended President Elias al-Hirawi's term, and later managed Lahoud's election, he had done so with U.S. and European acquiescence. But the Lebanese context in 2004 had changed. Hostility among both Lebanese Muslims and nationalists had grown. Nor was Bashar as shrewd as his father.

Lahoud's extension energized opposition to Syria's role in Lebanese politics. The most important new recruit was Rafik al-Hariri, who resigned as Lebanon's prime minister on October 20, 2004. Hariri had previously cooperated with Damascus, albeit not always comfortably. He maintained a delicate balance, concentrating on rebuilding the Lebanese economy and infrastructure while the Syrian regime increased its security control. Hariri had had little choice but to accept such a deal because, up until the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Washington had endorsed Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. Through 2004, however, Hariri became fed-up with his constant conflict with Lahoud and demeaning treatment at the hands of the young Syrian president. Hariri noted that Bashar was not "seasoned like his father."[31] Lahoud's extension was the last straw. Behind-the-scenes, Hariri reportedly advised the drafting of Resolution 1559 in collaboration with Chirac.[32] Hariri's strategic goal became "the exit of Syrian forces and the recovery of Lebanon's independence."[33]

Hariri's presence gave the Lebanese opposition a significant boost. He was the most dynamic politician in the Sunni Muslim community and a billionaire with widespread international contacts. He looked ahead to deploying his popularity and resources to rally Sunnis and others to overturn the Syrian-backed regime in internationally monitored May 2005 parliamentary elections. Hariri bought large quantities of orange ribbons in Paris for a Ukrainian style election campaign.[34] He also made overtures to Hezbollah, telling the Iranian ambassador to France that his problem "was not Hezbollah but the Syrian presence and its operations."[35] However, he avoided public participation in the opposition leadership to work backstage while Jumblatt took the public lead. Had Bashar behaved less crudely, he may not have pushed Hariri beyond the point of no return or transformed a tentative Christian-Druze rapprochement into a broader alignment with the Sunnis. Likewise, the Syrian president's missteps united Paris and Washington despite their fierce disagreement over Iraq.

Faced with a consolidating Franco-U.S. coalition, Assad sought to weaken the Lebanese opposition closer to home. He sent Hezbollah chief Nasrallah to persuade Jumblatt to desist.[36] Syrian military intelligence chief Ghazali also contacted Jumblatt,[37] but the Druze leader said he would not negotiate with "Lebanese or Syrian security officials."[38] On December 13, Jumblatt endorsed a broad opposition coalition. The coalition communiqué contained clear warnings to Syria and the new Lebanese government of Prime Minister Karami but stopped short of demanding removal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.[39]

The Breaking Point
In early 2005, the opposing camps entrenched themselves. Seeking to avoid full implementation of Resolution 1559, Damascus rediscovered clauses in the Ta'if agreement, shelved for sixteen years, which called merely for Syrian redeployment to the Bekaa Valley.[40] Jumblatt reacted to continuing Lebanese regime constriction of his Progressive Socialist Party by escalating his criticism of Syria's position in Lebanon. He dismissed the Syrian concept of "one people in two states," condemned Syria's refusal to have diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and demanded the "sweeping-out" of intelligence agencies.[41] In an address at Beirut's St. Joseph's University on January 26, symbolic as an expression of Druze-Christian convergence, Jumblatt referred to "a very dangerous Syrian-Lebanese mafia … our task is to break up this mafia … we must close the gate of Anjar [Syrian military intelligence headquarters in Lebanon] for good."[42]

To win the May 2005 parliamentary elections, Hariri needed the Lebanese opposition to come on board with Resolution 1559 and build momentum against Syrian dominance. On February 2, 2005, under Hariri's direction, the opposition undercut Syria's Ta'if redeployment maneuver by publicly backing full withdrawal of Syrian forces and intelligence agents from Lebanon.[43] After a February 10, 2005 mission to Damascus, U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen worried that Hariri was in physical danger.[44] Four days later, a massive explosion on the Beirut seafront killed Hariri and nineteen others.[45]

The perpetrators of the bombing likely wanted to terrorize the Lebanese opposition into submission, to destroy the nascent Lebanese coalition's call for Syrian departure, and to remove Hariri as the main pillar of an opposition electoral challenge to the Syrian backed regime. The Syrian regime may have calculated that any wave of anger would subside without proof as to the identity of the culprits. Simultaneously, Damascus overestimated its own strategic weight, believing itself immune to serious U.S. and French political retaliation. In a March 5 speech to the Syrian parliament, Bashar al-Assad expressed nothing but contempt for the Lebanese opposition, suggesting a foreign hand in their activism.[46]

After the assassination, competitive demonstrations indicated that forces hostile to Syria had the advantage in Lebanon. Jumblatt reflected popular reaction when he asked, "How can you convince a Lebanese from any region that the Syrian intelligence machine didn't kill Hariri and didn't try to kill Marwan Hamade? We are sentenced to death and Rustum Ghazali or some other [Syrian] officer decides the implementation."[47] There was an impressive Sunni Muslim turnout for Hariri's funeral, with Hariri's allies and family making clear that representatives of the Lebanese government were not welcome.[48] The opposition demanded the sacking of Prosecutor-General ‘Adnan ‘Adoum, Jamil al-Sayyid, and five other heads of Lebanon's security agencies, a new government to organize parliamentary elections on schedule, and an international inquiry into the assassination.[49] The Lebanese regime rejected or ignored the demands.[50] On March 1, street protests by Sunnis, Christians, and Druze forced the resignation of Karami, but this had no impact on President Lahoud and the security chiefs.[51]

Syria received a brief boost from Hezbollah. Many Shi‘ites were nervous about Resolution 1559's call for Hezbollah's disarmament, fearing that it will leave them overshadowed by Israel and the other Lebanese communities.[52] Hezbollah has long had a bargain with Damascus: Syria backed the party's "regional role" against Israel, and Hezbollah underwrote Syrian domination of Lebanon. On March 8, Nasrallah mobilized almost all the party's followers, emptying Beirut's southern suburbs. The party brought about 500,000 demonstrators to central Beirut. It was not intended to endorse the Lebanese regime, but Lahoud used the demonstration of strength to reappoint Karami, a calculated insult to the opposition.[53]

They met the challenge. On March 14, the opposition organized the largest demonstration in Lebanon's history; one million people gathered to mark the first month since Hariri's murder. The demonstration, which expressed a sectarian divide because only limited numbers of Shi‘ites attended, confirmed that Christians, Sunnis, and Druze together have about double the mobilization capacity of Shi‘ites. It also indicated that the opposition could draw between 60 and 70 percent of voters in free and fair elections, regardless of election system.[54]

In the international arena, the U.S. and French governments viewed Hariri's murder as an indictment of the Syrian and Lebanese regimes and insisted that Syria leave Lebanon immediately.[55] According to the Kuwaiti daily As-Siyasa, Crown Prince ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia gave Bashar the same message: "You don't know who killed him [Hariri] while the whole world knows? We don't believe that an announcement of the names will be in your interest."[56] The rest of the Arab world reluctantly went along with the Franco-U.S. stand though it sought to protect the Syrian leader. Even Iran, Hezbollah's patron, separated itself from Syria. Iranian sources told Al-Hayat that "Iran will support Syria in its confrontation with Israel, but it is not prepared to support Syria's presence in Lebanon because, in Iran's opinion, Lebanon's sovereignty is [more] important,"[57]

Bashar stalled for weeks after ordering a Syrian redeployment to the Bekaa in late February. He pointed to the security risks of Syrian withdrawal. As if on cue, several small bombs exploded in Christian suburbs of Beirut.[58] Washington, France, and the Lebanese opposition made it clear that they regarded Syria as culpable for such disruptions.[59] On April 2, Bashar bowed to the United Nations and promised full Syrian withdrawal by the end of the month. This came only after relentless U.S. and European pressure and the March 27 release of a United Nations report on the "causes, circumstances, and consequences" of Hariri's murder by Peter Fitzgerald, Irish deputy police commissioner and head of a small team sent to Beirut by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The report accused Syria of creating the atmosphere of intimidation preceding the assassination and criticized both Syrian and Lebanese security services for negligence, covering-up and manipulating evidence, and lack of any seriousness in solving the crime. It reported physical threats to Hariri from Bashar al-Assad and recommended an international inquiry with sweeping powers. It noted further investigation would probably be fruitless without prior removal of Lebanon's security chiefs.[60]

Damascus and its Lebanese clients look to salvage their position in Lebanon by frustrating international investigation of Hariri's murder and fracturing the multi-sectarian opposition. They are, however, in continuing retreat. On April 7, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 1595 which called for a comprehensive inquiry to identify Hariri's murderers, [61] brushing aside the Lebanese regime's attempts to emasculate follow-through from the Fitzgerald report.[62] On April 15, the Lebanese opposition provided sufficient parliamentary support to compel Lahoud to appoint the moderate Najib Mikati as prime minister after Karami failed to form a government.[63] Mikati brought in a widely respected Shi'ite, Hasan al-Saba'a, as interior minister. Saba'a had resigned from the General Security Directorate in 1999 to protest the elevation of Syrian favorite, Jamil al-Sayyid, to the director-generalship of the same organization. The new government has called for parliamentary elections in different regions in successive weeks, to be completed by mid-June, although some delays are possible. Mikati's government has also said that it welcomes United Nations' election assistance and European Union monitors.[64]

In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is reportedly contemplating damage control by reinventing himself as a political reformer, unloading responsibility for his disaster in Beirut on corrupt associates and relatives.[65] Such a regime makeover risks conflict among ‘Alawite and security force factions and may not be viable. Bashar may also play on fears in the Arab world and elsewhere about "instability" in Syria to try to sideline the Hariri investigation. The Syrian regime undoubtedly hopes the passage of time will diminish concern over Hariri's murder. Meanwhile, if the opposition triumphs in Lebanese elections and Lahoud steps down, the Syrian regime will work to preserve influence in Lebanon through its deep penetration of Lebanese security forces, the joint profiteering interests of regime-connected Syrian and Lebanese business mafias, and perpetuation of the Syrian intelligence presence. Bashar has proclaimed that "the power and role of Syria in Lebanon are not dependent on the presence of Syrian forces there,"[66] and the Syrian information minister has also dismissed the Syrian-Lebanese border as "phony."[67]

Is Freedom in Lebanon's Future?
Rafik al-Hariri was the architect of the opposition campaign. His bid for a personal alignment with the two major Maronite Christian personalities, Sfeir and Aoun,[68] the latter until recently living in exile in Paris, had the potential to bind Sunni Muslims and Maronites, each with close to 25 percent of Lebanon's population, as nothing else could.

Without Hariri the risk has grown of a less coordinated opposition, all the more so since Aoun's May 7 return from exile. Hezbollah has been able to reach out to Christian and Druze politicians to try to erode their united front. Aoun has appeared tempted by the idea of a Maronite-Shi‘ite connection. While such reconciliation might appear beneficial to Lebanon, it could undercut the Christian-Sunni-Druze convergence. There have been other tensions within the opposition. Jumblatt has expressed regret, for example, about opposition wavering over demands that Lahoud leave office.[69]

The full repercussions of Hariri's murder are yet to be seen. Within Lebanon, the murder cemented the Sunni mass in the opposition fold. Bashar al-Assad's rigid Baathist perspective on Lebanon, in which opposition to Baathist Damascus can only be a fleeting product of external interference, together with his incapacity to conceive an equal Syrian-Lebanese relationship, suggest prolonged difficulties. For the Lebanese opposition, the Syrian regime's status as prime suspect for Hariri's murder precludes a normal relationship between the existing Syrian leadership and any new Lebanese regime, regardless of what any political figure might say about a new atmosphere after Syria's military withdrawal.

Much depends on determined international investigation of responsibility for Hariri's murder, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1595, with continued close United Nations, U.S. and European attention to the Lebanese-Syrian arena. Prospects for the investigation would be improved by opposition success in Lebanese elections. Lahoud's downfall would impel Hezbollah into a Lebanese compromise over its arms and political role.

Any solidification of suspicion against Damascus regarding Hariri's assassination will bring a crisis of survival for Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Baathists. On the one hand, given the political wasteland created in Syria since the 1960s, regime decomposition may be disorderly. On the other hand, the costs of perpetuating Syrian interference in Lebanon will be enormous for both countries. Syrian interference undercuts the Lebanese economy and, as the assassination of Hariri demonstrated, also its political stability. Simultaneously, the Syrian adventure in Lebanon has increasingly isolated Syria internationally and in the Arab world while at the same time catalyzing corruption among the ruling elite. With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1595, international credibility is on the line. The Syrian regime will not be able to sidestep its commitments without consequence. The Assads' Lebanese gamble may have once alleviated pressure on the Syrian regime, but it has now backfired, opening the gates for transformation, not only in Lebanon but in Syria as well.

William Harris is a professor of political studies at Otago University in New Zealand.

[1] William Harris, Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1997), pp. 261-2.
[2] BBC News, Apr. 17, 2004.
[3] Christopher Hemmer, "Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Clinging to His Roots?" in Barry Schneider and Jerrold Post, eds., Know Thy Enemy: Profiles of Adversary Leaders and Their Strategic Cultures (Maxwell Air Force Base: U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center, 2003), p. 221.
[4] The World Bank, World Development Report 2004 (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2003), pp. 252-3.
[5] Al-Hayat (London), May 6, 2001.
[6] Ibid., Mar. 28, 2002.
[7] Ibid., July 18, 2000.
[8] Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
[9] Farid Ghadry, "Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, pp. 61-70.
[10] An-Nahar (Beirut), Mar. 20, 2001.
[11] Al-Hayat, Sept. 21, 2000.
[12] Ibid., Aug. 26, 2000.
[13] Ibid., Aug. 20, 2001.
[14] Ibid., Aug. 9, 2001.
[15] Gary Gambill, "The Myth of Syria's Old Guard," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Feb.-Mar. 2004.
[16] The Daily Star (Beirut), June 2, 2001; BBC News, May 25, 2000.
[17] As recounted by Hariri to Walid Jumblatt, Ar-Ra'y al-‘Aam (Kuwait), Feb. 18, 2005.
[18] Peter Fitzgerald, Report of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission to Lebanon (New York: United Nations, Feb. 25- Mar. 24, 2005), p. 5.
[19] An-Nahar, Aug. 29, 2004
[20] Ibid., Aug. 31, Sept. 1, 2004.
[21] John Abizaid, Central Command chief general, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 11, 2005.
[22] Richard Myers, U.S. joint chiefs of staff chairman, Late Edition, CNN, Apr. 18, 2004; The Daily Star, Sept. 29, 2004.
[23] The New York Times, June 25, 2003.
[24] Al-Hayat, Sept. 18, 2003.
[25] Ad-Dustur (Amman), Sept. 9, 2004.
[26] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.
[27] Al-Hayat, Sept. 9, 2004.
[28] Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council resolution 1559 (New York: United Nations, Oct. 1, 2004), p. 8.
[29] An-Nahar, Sept. 18, Oct. 21, 2004.
[30] Le Monde (Paris), Oct. 20, 2004.
[31] Comments to Irish Times (Dublin), Jan. 2005, quoted in An-Nahar, Feb. 26, 2005.
[32] The Times (London), Mar. 18, 2005; The New York Times, Mar. 20, 2005.
[33] Al-Hayat, Feb. 21, 2005.
[34] Randa Taki al-Din, in Al-Hayat, Feb. 18, 2005.
[35] Al-Hayat, Feb. 21, 2005.
[36] As-Safir (Beirut), Nov. 27, 2004.
[37] Ibid., Dec. 13, 2004.
[38] An-Nahar, Dec. 14, 2004.
[39] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Dec. 14, 2004.
[40] For detailed discussion of the Syrian-Lebanese dimension of the 1989 Ta'if agreement, see Joseph Maila, The Document of National Understanding: A Commentary (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992), pp. 80-8.
[41] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), Jan. 6, 2005; An-Nahar, Jan. 11, 2005; Al-Mustaqbal, Jan. 16, 2005.
[42] An-Nahar, Jan. 27, 2005.
[43] Ibid., Feb. 3, 2005.
[44] The Times, Mar. 18, 2005.
[45] The New York Times, Feb. 15, 2005;, Feb. 14, 2005.
[46]Al-Hayat, Mar. 6, 2005.
[47] An-Nahar, Feb. 25, 2005.
[48] Al-Hayat, Feb. 16, 2005.
[49] Ibid., Feb. 15, 2005; An-Nahar, Mar. 3, 2005.
[50] Al-Hayat, Feb. 16, 2005; An-Nahar, Feb. 21, 2005.
[51] BBC News, Feb. 28, 2005; The Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2005.
[52] Le Monde, Mar. 7, 2005.
[53], Mar. 11, 2005; The Washington Post, Mar. 11, 2005.
[54] Al-Hayat, Apr. 5, 2005.
[55] Joint statement by President Bush and President Chirac, White House news release, Feb. 21, 2005.
[56] As-Siyassa (Kuwait), Apr. 2, 2005.
[57] Al-Hayat, Feb. 21, 2005.
[58] An-Nahar, Mar. 24, 2005; Al-Mustaqbal, Mar. 28, 2005.
[59] For example, David Satterfield, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state on a visit to Beirut, Al-Hayat, Mar.26, 2005.
[60] Fitzgerald, Report of the U.N. Fact-Finding Mission to Lebanon, p. 20.
[61] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1595, Apr. 7, 2005.
[62] Al-Hayat, Apr. 6, 2005.
[63] Al-Mustaqbal, Apr. 16, 2005.
[64] Ibid., May 1, 2005.
[65] As-Siyassa, Apr. 13, 2005.
[66] Al-Hayat, Mar. 6, 2005.
[67] An-Nahar, Mar. 7, 2005.
[68] Randa Taki ad-Din in Al-Hayat, Feb. 18, 2005.
[69] Al-Mustaqbal, May 2, 2005.

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