The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in an enormous explosion in Beirut on February 14 sent as many political ripples through the region as questions it raised about the motives and identity of those who carried out the attack. Apart from its effect on Lebanon’s internal politics, the attack seems likely to impinge on Lebanese-Syrian relations and Syria’s relations with the international community, especially the US, France and the UN.
The 60-year-old former prime minister was a naturalized Saudi citizen and a billionaire, with strong links to the Saudi royal family. Born into the poor family of a farm-worker in the southern Lebanese port-city of Sidon on November 1, 1944, Hariri sought a better future in Saudi Arabia in the late 1960s by answering an advertisement for a teaching post. There he did various jobs until he founded his first construction company in the early 1970s. His fortunes made a substantial leap to excessive wealth in 1977 when, as a subcontractor for French consortium Oger, he took up the challenge of building in a record-breaking six-month period a palace for the late king Khaled bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Saud in the mountain resort of al-Ta’if before an Islamic summit. This gained him the confidence of then-crown prince Fahd, who became king in 1982. The patronage of the Saudi royal family was instrumental in winning Hariri lucrative government and private-sector contracts that helped make him one of Saudi Arabia’s leading entrepreneurs.
In addition to his skill in the world of business, Hariri demonstrated a ability to use his personal wealth to get onto Lebanon’s political stage. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 provided Hariri with an opportunity to make his debut on the country’s political scene by means of philanthropic exploits. He donated US$ 12 million to Lebanese victims of the invasion and the Lebanese branch of his construction company, Oger Liban, helped clean up the streets of Beirut.
After the civil war of 1975–90, Hariri played a key role in the reconstruction. Yet instead of generating prosperity that might “trickle down” through Lebanese society, the reconstruction effort turned out to be one of the biggest schemes of cronyism and robber-baron capitalism that Lebanon has ever seen. Hariri’s efforts were designed to benefit him personally, as well as his friends and cronies. He was the biggest shareholder in Solidere, the construction company that carried out the reconstruction of Beirut’s city center. The plans included compulsory purchase orders and the appropriation of property from impoverished families and property-owners in downtown Beirut to build large hotels, shopping malls and other projects in contracts awarded to Solidere. He used his weight and contacts to attract foreign investment, mainly from the Gulf countries. In the process, he dragged Lebanon’s economy, already weakened by the ravages of war and political instability, deeper into recession. His use of high interest rates to stabilize the Lebanese pound and his excessive borrowing to finance his reconstruction plans saddled the country’s economy with huge debts. Instead of generating employment by focusing on productive sectors of the economy, the reconstruction effort emphasised huge real-estate and infrastructural projects. Unemployment soared and property prices in the capital rocketed to levels far beyond the reach of most Beirutis.
A political survivor, Hariri managed to navigate the difficult shoals of Lebanese politics, and headed five cabinets before he finally resigned last October because of disagreements withpresident Emile Lahud. In fact, the late prime minister’s experience in political office, which started when he was first named prime minister in 1992, was punctuated by repeated rows with the president, a former army general whose reputation for integrity makes him very much an odd-man-out in the sea of sleaze and corruption that makes up Lebanon’s political elite. When Lahud was first elected in 1998, Hariri stepped down from the premiership amid disagreements with the president over economic policy and Hariri’s restrictions on freedoms of speech, association and the press. He returned to office after parliamentary elections in September 2000, but his term was once again dominated by disputes with the president over various macroeconomic policies, including the prime minister’s plans to privatize the country’s power and telecommunications utilities.
A previously unknown group calling itself Jama’at al-Nusrah wal-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (“Group of Support and Jihad in Geographic Syria”) claimed responsibility for the explosion that killed Hariri and 16 others, and wounded 137 people. In a videotaped message released by the group, one Ahmad Abu ‘Adas said that the group killed Hariri as a “just punishment” for his support of the Saudi regime. But, despite this claim of responsibility, Hariri’s assassination provoked an avalanche of accusations against Syria, provoking in the process concerns about the stability of Lebanon and about whether the country might revert to civil war, which once devastated the country and fractured its social fabric. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who in the past had maintained close links with Damascus, had recently lent his voice to demands by Lebanese opposition politicians, most of whom are Christian and Druze, on Syria, which has some 16,000 troops in Lebanon, to remove its troops from the country before the parliamentary elections sheduled to take place in May. His disagreements with Damascus stemmed mainly from Syria’s support for Emile Lahud.
The Lebanese opposition issued a statement holding “the Lebanese regime and the Syrian regime, as the authority having tutelage over Lebanon, responsible for this crime, and for other similar crimes.” This kind of rhetoric is highly divisive in Lebanon, highlighting the fact that Syria’s military presence has become the main faultline dividing the Lebanese and lying at the heart of the country’s worsening political crisis. While Syria’s Lebanese supporters say that Syria’s presence in Lebanon is a source of stability in the country, its opponents prefer to characterise it as an occupation.
For its part, Syria has denied any part in Hariri’s killing. Syrian president Bashshar al-Asad has said that “Syria’s government and people declare that they stand by brotherly Lebanon in these dangerous situations and extend the warmest condolences to the families of Rafik al-Hariri and the victims.” He characterized the assassination as an “odious crime … aimed at striking Lebanese unity and civil peace.”
The US was quick to use the assassination to exert pressure on Syria. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice summoned home America’s ambassador to Damascus, who delivered a stern message expressing American anger before leaving the Syrian capital. Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, said: “It is premature... [to know] who was responsible for this attack, but we continue to be concerned about the foreign occupation in Lebanon”. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon has been high on the American foreign-policy agenda for the region. Last September, the US joined France in sponsoring UN Security Council resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of “all remaining foreign forces” from Lebanon and the disarmament of all militias. This was a reference to Syrian troops in Lebanon and to the Hizbullah-led Islamic Resistance.
In many ways, the deepening crisis in Lebanon is a result of America’s quest for a new political framework in the Middle East. The Lebanese opposition has been emboldened by the presence of US troops in Iraq, which has a long border with Syria, by Washington’s noisy clamoring for “regime change” and “democratization”, and by the threats and pressure the US has been using against Damascus. Opposition figures seized the chance to challenge Syria when resolution 1559 made the withdrawal of Syrian troops a priority in Washington’s Middle Eastpolicy, and raised the pitch of their anti-Syrian rhetoric.
Despite Washington’s move to use Hariri’s assassination to exert more pressure on Damascus, the fact that the US is sinking deeper into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq makes it unlikely that it will be able to muster enough troops or political credibility to obtain a Security Council resolution to back its threats against Syria. That leaves the door open to a joint American-French effort to impose international sanctions on Syria. Short of that Washington has the ready-made option of tightening the unilateral sanctions that were imposed on Syria under domestic legislation passed in 2003, known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act. Last May Washington banned US imports to Syria, apart from food and medicines, prevented Syrian aircraft from flying to and from American territory, and froze the assets of Syrians suspected of violating the Syria Accountability Act. The purpose of the Act was to “halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, and stop its development of weapons of mass destruction.”
Even if the likelihood of a US-led military strike against Syria seems small at this stage, there is no doubt that the assassination of Hariri and the pressures it let loose on Damascus have further weakened Syria’s hand. As it faces these mounting pressures, Damascus finds itself in the unenviable position of having to provide a quick, satisfactory answer to the question of who is responsible for Hariri’s death. One option is to allow international experts to take part in the investigation into the assassination. This would send a clear signal to the international community that authorities in both Syria and Lebanon have nothing to hide. But with Washington turning its attention increasingly to Damascus, one wonders whether even such an answer will relieve Syria of the mounting American pressure.