Whether or not Syrian President Bashar Assad was
behind Monday's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri,
the car bombing is sure to strengthen forces inside the administration of U.S.
President George W. Bush who have long argued for "regime change" in
Before the bombing that killed Hariri, half a dozen of his bodyguards and at
least five bystanders, the balance of power between anti-Assad hardliners and
more flexible forces within the administration was roughly even.
Earlier this month, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered
a hawk on Damascus, even insisted to a Congressional panel that "it is
not our policy to destabilize Syria."
But, as suggested by Washington's abrupt withdrawal of its ambassador in Damascus
Tuesday morning, that position may well be in the process of changing, if it
hasn't changed already.
"The regime changers will be strengthened by this," predicted Michael
Hudson, who teaches at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown
University in Washington, D.C. He said Washington's precipitous recalling of
its ambassador signals a "decision to really put the screws to the Syrians."
"Assuming they did it, this was very stupid," said Augustus Richard
Norton, a specialist on Lebanon at Boston University, who agreed that the balance
of power within the administration will definitely shift in favor of the hardliners.
Hariri, a businessman who made a fortune in Saudi Arabia and then ruled Lebanon
for 10 of the last 15 years, enjoyed close personal ties with French President
Jacques Chirac and cultivated friendly relations with Washington, where he owned
one large house and was in the process of building a colossal mansion.
Given Syrian influence in Lebanon in the form of anywhere from 12,000 to
30,000 troops and an active intelligence service in Lebanon for most of the
past 30 years Hariri also cultivated close relations with Damascus, including
business ties with influential officials.
But he broke with Syria last summer when he resigned as prime minister after
Damascus insisted on suspending the constitutional limit on presidential terms
so that Emile Lahoud could continue in office.
While Hariri did not actively oppose the move, he reportedly encouraged the
U.S. and France to push through a remarkably tough UN Security Council resolution
that demanded that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
The subsequent passage of UNSCR 1559 was not only a major blow to Damascus,
but also served to unify and embolden the Lebanese opposition, which has been
mobilizing for parliamentary elections scheduled for May on a common anti-Syrian
While Hariri had not publicly embraced the opposition position, hardliners
in Damascus, who some analysts believe exert more control over Lebanon than
Assad, saw Hariri's role as a betrayal.
"Uncomfortable though it may be for Syria in international opinion, in
certain quarters of Syria the stakes in Lebanon are existential, and existential
challenges may be deemed to justify existential solutions," said Norton,
who believes that Syria, or at least some elements within the Syrian government,
were behind the assassination.
At the same time that Syria was defending itself against Res. 1559, hawks and
realists within the Bush administration were fighting over how far Washington
should push Damascus to cooperate. Their main concerns were preventing the infiltration
of "foreign fighters" across the border from Syria into Iraq and in
arresting Iraqis living in Syria who were suspected by Washington to be financing
and helping to organize a rapidly expanding insurgency, or at least freezing
their bank accounts.
The hawks, centered primarily in the Pentagon's civilian leadership and Vice
President Dick Cheney's office, have long favored a "regime change"
policy for Damascus anyway.
One of Cheney's top Middle East advisors, David Wurmser, and Undersecretary
of Defense Douglas Feith both with strong ties to Israel's settler movement
contributed to papers in the 1990s that urged Israel and the United States
to arm and finance groups in both Lebanon and Syria to force Damascus' withdrawal
from Lebanon and destabilize the Ba'athist regime.
Since Washington's invasion of Iraq in March 2003, they have argued Damascus'
alleged failure to fully cooperate with the occupation justified a more aggressive
policy, including military strikes. More pragmatic factions, centered in the
State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and among military
commanders on the ground, countered that Assad had in fact steadily increased
his cooperation and that U.S. measures to actively destabilize his regime could
In December, the hawks launched a more public campaign with a series of opinion
pieces in their favored press organs, the Washington Times, the Weekly
Standard, and the Wall Street Journal, accusing Damascus of active
support for the insurgency and calling for a major escalation.
"We could bomb Syrian military facilities," wrote William Kristol,
the Standard's neoconservative editor. "We could go across the border
in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern
Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing
center for Syrian activities; we could covertly help or overtly support the
The campaign coincided, according to a Journal account, with the presentation
to Bush of a list of options that included imposing tougher economic sanctions,
downgrading diplomatic relations, more active U.S. support for anti-Syrian factions
in Lebanon, and possible military strikes against alleged terrorist training
camps in Syria.
None of these was approved at the time, however, although all of them and
now possibly more, in the wake of Hariri's assassination remain on the table.
While many Middle East specialists here appear to believe that the Syrian regime,
or possibly a rogue element within it, was responsible for the blast, that view
is by no means universal, particularly given the likelihood that Washington
would blame Damascus in any event.
Indeed, one "senior State Department official" told the New York
Times: "Even though there's no evidence to link [the assassination]
to Syria, Syria has, by negligence or design, allowed Lebanon to become destabilized."
Noting that Hariri had not identified himself completely with the opposition
to Syria's presence in Lebanon, Hudson told IPS that he considered that Islamist
extremists trying to harm the Saudi royal family, which has been Hariri's strongest
supporter, was "a more plausible scenario." Al-Qaeda has said it was
Others have suggested that Israel or their erstwhile allies in Lebanon, the
Phalangist militia, may have been responsible, given the certainty that Syria
would be blamed for the killing.
"It is certainly possible that the Syrian military leadership was sufficiently
stupid and arrogant to decide to assassinate Hariri," according to C.S.
Smith, a regional specialist at the University of Arizona. "But many others
stood to benefit from such an act, including right-wing Phalangist Christian
elements closely tied to neocons in the Bush administration."
Indeed, Walid Phares, a right-wing Lebanese-born Christian and fellow of the
neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), issued a statement
immediately after the killing that appeared designed to cast suspicion on Syria
and one of its allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
Another hardline neoconservative, former Bush speechwriter David Frum, writing
Tuesday in the far-right National Review Online, fingered Assad as the
party that "had the greatest motive" for the killing, even if he admitted
that it may "seem incredible that young Bashar Assad
the path of confrontation with the United States."
If he was indeed responsible, noted Frum, "he has taken another huge step
toward open war on the United States and its interests in the region."
"I would be very shocked if Syria has a hand in it because it's not in
the position to rock the boat at this point," said Bassam Haddad, a Levant
expert at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, who said he would not hazard
an opinion until more evidence was forthcoming.
"It is obvious that any kind of rocking the boat is going to empower the
opposition that will call for an immediate ouster of Syria from Lebanon."
(Inter Press Service)