Sun, February 20, 2005
Was Syria really to blame?
By Eric Margolis
The 300-kilo car bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut last week is being widely blamed on Syria. The Bush administration in the U.S., cheered on by Israel, accused Syria of "terrorism," withdrew its ambassador and all but threatened Damascus with war.
A Syrian role in the crime defies logic, though not possibility. Syrian President Bashar-el-Assad's regime is desperately seeking to avoid providing U.S. President George W. Bush with a pretext for war and has urgently sought improved relations with Washington.
Hariri dealt comfortably with Syria for years. Though opposed to the continued presence of 15,000 Syrian "peacekeeping" troops in Lebanon, Hariri was not a major threat to Damascus. In fact, this consummate but pragmatic Levantine politician played all sides and had enjoyed close political and business links to Syria.
Suspicion points at Lebanon's far-rightist, anti-Syrian Maronites, Israel's Mossad or violent Islamists. All have an interest in destabilizing Lebanon and hurting Syria.
Other suspects include rogue elements from one of Syria's many competing security agencies, or business rivals of billionaire Hariri, who was a brilliant but ruthless entrepreneur.
The professional expertise of the bombing strongly suggests a state intelligence agency. Hariri's murder is only the latest in at least a dozen unsolved political assassinations in Lebanon over the past two decades.
Desire to oust Assad
The Beirut bombing occurred as the White House is intensifying efforts to overthrow Syria's government. The U.S., France and the UN Security Council are demanding that Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon. Syrian forces had been invited in to end Lebanon's bloody 15-year civil war.
They remained and made sure pro-Syrian politicians ran Lebanon. Damascus refuses to pull out until Israel withdraws its troops occupying the Golan Heights and West Bank.
Syria has never entirely accepted Lebanese independence. French colonialists created Lebanon out of historical Syria to create a Maronite Christian-dominated enclave.
Washington has totally adopted Israel's view that Syria is a dangerous threat and a supporter of terrorists -- meaning Palestinian resistance groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Lebanon's welfare and resistance organization Hezbollah.
Israel is determined to get revenge on Hezbollah, which defeated its attempts to turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate and drove Israeli occupation forces from Lebanon -- a small but vicious war this writer saw firsthand.
Israeli PM Ariel Sharon's rightist Likud Party may be renewing previous efforts to bring Lebanon back into Israel's sphere of influence. For the past quarter century, Syria and Israel have waged a dirty war of bombings and assassinations to dominate Lebanon and Jordan.
The White House is hoping its threats and economic siege of Syria will provoke the overthrow of the Assad regime. This strategy might work.
A fragile mosaic
Like Iraq, Syria is a fragile ethnic/religious mosaic held together by an iron-fisted central government. Bashar al-Assad inherited his regime in 2000 from his father, Hafiz, a wily, ruthless general who had ruled Syria since 1970. The younger Assad is trying to modernize, liberalize and reform Syria but faces heavy resistance from the Baath party's old guard, which fears too much change, a la Gorbachev, will produce revolution.
The Assads belonged to a secretive religious sect, the Alawi, considered heretics by Syria's majority Sunni Muslims. Alawi make up only 10% of Syria's 17 million people. But their dominance of the armed forces and intelligence services allowed Assad Sr. to rule Syria for three decades. A similar process occurred in Iraq, where minority Sunnis held power by controlling the army and security forces.
The elder Assad crushed numerous attempts by the Sunni majority and Islamists to overthrow his regime. I visited the city of Hama just after the Assad regime killed 10,000 rebelling members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Syrians would like to be rid of the Assad regime and U.S.-imposed economic sanctions but fear sudden change will produce chaos or civil war.
Israel would welcome Syria's implosion, as it did Iraq's. Hence current Israeli efforts to press the White House and Congress to overthrow Syria's unloved, isolated regime, whose only ally is Iran -- itself a leading target on America's Mideast hit list.