Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Political tsunami in Lebanon
February 21 2005
Hariri assassination a political tsunami
There could be a dozen varying political scenarios in the Lebanese-Syrian equation, but no matter how Damascus plays its hand, the American-led pressure being applied against Syria to withdraw its 13-15,000-strong military force in Lebanon will not be eased. The Bush administration has clearly signalled it and it has French support. There is very little the Syrian government of President Bashar Al Assad could do to withstand the pressure and play the brinkmanship of his late father Hafez Al Assad.
Damascus retains enough clout in the Lebanese parliament to resist a change in government through the legislative process, but it might not be enough. The Hariri assassination has brought together many non-political Lebanese with political parties and communities such as the Sunni camp led by the slain prime minister, the Maronite Christian community and the Druze from Shouf mountains in an alliance that would not have been thought possible.
Despite the mounting accusations that Syria had ordered the killing of Hariri since he had fallen out with Damascus and posed a challenge to Syrian interests in Lebanon, the prevailing belief in the region is that the Syrians are not that naive to believe that they could get away with it. Many are convinced that an external force, most likely Israel, was behind the assassination since the Jewish state stood to benefit most from the resulting crisis.
French President Jacques Chirac, a close friend of Hariri, has bluntly accused Syria and its allies in Lebanon of orchestrating his assassination and demanded an immediate international investigation. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said his country had reasons for strong suspicion that Syria was behind the killing.
The effort to terminate the Syrian influence in Lebanese affairs could be interpreted as part of Israel's drive -- successful so far indeed -- to separate the "Arab confrontation states or parties" -- Egypt, the Palestinians, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria -- from each other and pre-empt a united Arab negotiating position in the Middle East conflict.
That was established in 1978 when Israel managed to negotiate with Egypt on its own and sign the Camp David agreements. Egypt's Anwar Sadat might have initiated the move, but he was nudged into that corner by the US.
The Camp David agreements removed Egypt as a "confrontation state" with Israel, which followed up with invading Lebanon in 1982 and tried in vain to install an Israeli-friendly regime in Beirut. Israel had no choice but to withdraw from Lebanon after a disastrous 17-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 1999.
One down, four to go.
Israel dismantled a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating position launched at the international conference in Madrid in late 1991 by engaging the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in secret talks that led to the signing of the Israel-PLO Oslo agreements in September 1993 under American auspices.
As soon as reports of the secret talks came out, Jordan said it was dismantling the joint negotiating team, leaving the PLO to pursue its own track with Israel with no reflections on the Jordanian track.
Subsequently, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in October 1994 while the Jewish state kept the PLO engaged in "interim arrangements" pending "final status" negotiations in 1998.
Two down, two to go.
Now it is Lebanon's turn to be pried away. The first concrete step in this direction came when the UN Security Council adopted a US-backed resolution in September 2004. Resolution 1559 called on Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs and withdraw its forces from Lebanon. Equally importantly, it said the Israeli-occupied Sheba Farms was seized from Syria in 1967 and not from Lebanon. It meant that no Lebanese territory was under Israeli occupation and therefore the Lebanese had no bilateral dispute with the Jewish state.
In order to fully assert for itself three down and one more to go, Israel needs to cut the Syrian-Lebanese artery as reflected in the strong Syrian influence in Lebanese politics, and this would be achieved when Damascus would find itself so much under international pressure that it would have no choice but to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and dismantle its intelligence network there. This was emphasised by US President George W Bush during his tour of Europe this week.
In a joint statement, Chirac and Bush said: "The United States and France join with the European Union and the international community in condemning the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and in their support for a free, independent, and democratic Lebanon."
It added: "We urge full and immediate implementation of UN resolution 1559 in all its aspects."
Washington has recalled its ambassador to Syria following the assassination and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stressed the distinction between holding Syria morally responsible for developments in Lebanon and directly accusing Damascus of Hariri's murder.
However, Chirac, whose country has close links with the Lebanese Christian community, made no such distinction and railed against Syria's intelligence services in Lebanon.
"It is not only the military occupation that is being questioned," Chirac told a news conference on Tuesday night in Brussels. "The special service operatives controlling Lebanon are in fact more questionable than the military occupation."
No doubt, the pressure against Syria would be intensified in the days ahead. That was noted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who sent his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, to Damascus with a message to Assad on Wednesday.
"Something has to happen because the situation is difficult now and (Syria) won't be able to stand against the pressures of the international community," said Mubarak. "But we must find solutions."
Mubarak, a veteran Arab leader, knows that the US and Israel have smelt blood and would tighten the screws against Assad to unbearable levels and would not let go until their goals are achieved even if it means destabilising Syria and Lebanon.
It would be an intelligent guess that Mubarak's message advises Assad not to engage in brinkmanship and accept the inevitability of having to relinquish his country's dominant role in Lebanon, particularly given the growing Lebanese opposition campaign against the Syrian presence in their midst.
Syria has already said that it remains committed to start withdrawing some troops from Lebanon soon in line with the Taif accord that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa said this month that he expected the troops to stay on in Lebanon for another two years.
The Taif agreement required the then 35,000-strong Syrian forces to withdraw to the eastern Bekaa region, close to the Syrian border, within two years. Syria periodically redeployed its troops, which now number 13-15,000. Syria did withdraw 3,000 troops from Beirut last year.
The Lebanese opposition has also called for implementation of the Taif agreement, but insists on a total Syrian pullout.
For purposes of legitimacy for the US-Israeli drive against Syria, a UN-appointed commission will investigate the Hariri killing and determine who was behind it.
The investigators, headed by Peter Fitzgerald, is due in Beirut on Friday and Lebanese Justice Minister Adnan Addoum has affirmed that the government is "ready to fully co-operate with the UN team, as long as Lebanese sovereignty is preserved."
However, few attach any hopes to the commission's effort since it seems to be a foregone conclusion that no investigation would ever reveal the real hands behind the Feb.14 explosion. Many see the UN investigation as a different version of the UN search in Iraq for (non-existent) weapons-of-mass -destruction -- the justification that the US offered before invading Iraq in March last year.
Analyst and commentator Samir Khalaf wrote: "Brutal and cold-blooded assassinations are an indelible feature of Lebanese political culture. Abominable as they are, usually such acts remain unexplained. The perpetrators and criminals are never recognised or brought to justice. Barely four months ago, former economy minister Marwan Hamade miraculously survived a bomb attack. If the same malicious forces were also behind Hariri's murder, and the incriminating traces are strewn all over, they made certain that providence would not this time foil their crime."
The prima facie evidence in the Hariri killing is so overwhelming that there is no doubt whatsoever that only a powerful government intelligence agency with extensive contacts and network in Lebanon could have carried out the assassination. The first candidate who fits the description is Syria, but that is the obvious conclusion. Equally strong in its intelligence network in Lebanon is Israel, whose notorious Mossad spy agency has a record of carrying out bombings and shootings in Lebanon although its role was never explicitly proved.
Given the benefits that Israel is reaping and hopes to reap from the scenario resulting from the assassination of Hariri, it would not be off the mark at all to line up Israel as the culprit. It is known for such deceptive tactics and it would not be the first or last time it would undertake such actions.
Where do the people of Lebanon -- the most important player in the equation -- fit into the scheme of things?
Politics apart, the message that is coming out of Lebanon is that the Hariri killing is heavily anti-Syrian.
One thing is clear: Many Lebanese want Syria to leave them alone. The assertion that the Lebanese are capable of looking after themselves without Syrian help has been heard for long.
Effectively, the Hariri killing brought those voices together as well as others who did not speak out earlier.
As Gibran Tueni, an opposition leader who publishes the Beirut Daily observes, "this is the beginning of something important. It's the first time in Lebanon you have Muslims, Christians and Druze asking for the same thing."
Tens of thousands of people have marched through the streets of Beirut in the largest anti-Syrian protests since the Hariri killing.
Lebanese opposition figures have seized on public anger to demand that Syria pull out and that the Beirut government it supports resigns.
Prime Minister Omar Karami, who succeeded Hariri as prime minister in October when the latter resigned in protest against Syrian moves to retain Emile Lahoud as president for another three years, has said he is ready to resign.
Lahoud himself spoke in a tougher tone. He was quoted as saying in a newspaper interview on Wednesday that the government cannot succumb to opposition demands.
Lahoud argued that the withdrawal of the Syrian army, which went to Lebanon as part of an Arab peacekeeping force under an Arab League mandate in 1976, can only be decided in line with the Taif agreement.
If it comes to a vote of confidence in the 128-member parliament, the government would be unlikely to lose since it has a majority in the assembly, which will meet on Feb. 28 to question the government on who was behind the Hariri assassination.
Orchestrating the opposition are Druze leader Walid Junblatt, Maronite Catholic Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir, and Sunni Muslims led by Bahaa Hariri, son of the slain president, with the blessing of the Sunni Muslim mufti of Lebanon.
Fears are indeed high that the country could slide back into civil war -- a prospect no one in the region wants.
Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has already issued a warning that the popular agitation against Syria's role on the country following the Hariri killing could plunge Lebanon into civil war again.
It all depends on how Damascus and the government in Beirut opt to deal with the mounting calls for a Syrian departure from Lebanon leading to a restructuring of the geopolitical balance that would work against Syria's strategic interests.
The opposition leaders determined to force the Syrian hand. They are said to be planning a series of "spectacular" shows of strength in Beirut aimed at paralysing government activity.
Parallel to that, they will also step up external pressure by organising rallies by Lebanese living outside the country, including the US, Europe, Middle East and Far East.
If the Syrians and government forces decide to use muscles to put down the growing agitation within Lebanon, then it is inevitable that violence would follow, but then it would invariably invite foreign military intervention, including a possible American-French alliance entering the country.
Mounting French pressure
If, on the other hand, Syria succumbs to the US-French pressure and quits Lebanon -- which is a likely scenario -- then the question that comes up is: How would the country's majority Shiites respond to the newfound strength of the Maronite Christians backed by the Hariri and Junblatt camps?
Experts familiar with the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, arguably the most organised group in Lebanon, say that the organisation is pragmatic and realistic to grasp that a return to arms is not an option and that it has to adjust its positions to the new realities emerging on the ground in the country.
Abdo Saad, a Lebanese analyst, says: "The good thing about Hizbollah is that their political discourse has been very moderate and they have won the respect and admiration of the opposition,
"Hizbollah has taken the initiative, which will be translated into dialogue with the opposition in the coming days. They want to find common ground."
In the meantime, the opposition is said to be seeking to split the Shiite ranks by enlisting the support of the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, who heads the Shiite Amal movement, against Hizbollah. It is not yet clear how far vulnerable is Berri and his supporters to such pressure in the changing scenario where it is abundantly clear that the crisis is turning out to be a make-or-break situation for the country.
An immediate result of Berri joining the anti-Syrian group would be a green signal for an open debate in parliament about the Hariri killing where one of the opposition demands would be for questioning the Lebanese intelligence chief General Jamil Al Sayad as well as General Rostum Ghazallah of Syrian military intelligence.
Kuwait's Al Siyassah has named the two as behind the assassination.
"Those standing behind Hariri's death are Brigadier General Assef Shawkat, who recently became Syria's military-intelligence chief, Syrian Brigadier Bahjat Suleiman and Lebanese Brigadier Jamil Sayyed, who is known for his blind loyalty to the Syrian regime," according to the paper.
Junblatt has also openly declared that the Syrian-Lebanese intelligence services were behind Hariri's assassination, which came ahead of parliamentary elections in May where the Hariri-Sfeir-Junblatt alliance was expected to do well and gain a challenging position against Syria.
Former army commander General Michel Aoun, a bitter foe of the Syrians who lives in exile in France, says he expects the government to be toppled in a vote on Monday.
According to Aoun, although parliament was still made up of the same members who agreed to the extension of President Lahoud's mandate and approved the appointment of the Karami cabinet, the killing of Hariri has opened their eyes to the need for change.
If Karami steps down as prime minister before a vote, Damascus might try to use it as a tool to defuse the tensions, but it would be a fruitless exercise since the US and France would not settle for anything less than complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.
In Aoun's view, which he gave to Beirut's Daily Star newspaper in an interview, there is a strong international political will to pressure Syria into leaving Lebanon.
"The Syrians will be out before the parliamentary elections in Lebanon take place," he told the paper. "In case that does not happen, I am sure the international community will move. The issue is not a matter of bilateral relations between Syria and Lebanon anymore."
Syria might not have much of options at all except to bow to the American pressure unless it wishes to risk a military confrontation that would not stop anywhere short of a regime change in Damascus.
For more than a decade, Syria has seen steady pressure which it sees as aimed at stripping itself of what it considers as its strategic assets which it intends use in possible negotiations with Israel to secure the return of its Golan Heights.
Damascus also has economic interests in Lebanon. More than a quarter o million Syrians are employed in Lebanon, and they also control many businesses based in Lebanon. There is no definite figure on what percentage of Syria's gross domestic product comes from Lebanon, but it is indeed believed to be significant to the Syrian economy.
However, economic considerations might have to play second fiddle to political survival.
The US and Israel have always used every opportunity to apply pressure on Damascus, whether in the name of its alleged support for international terrorism, the presence of hard-line Palestinian groups in Syrian territory, the alleged flow of Iranian-supplied arms for Hizbollah for use against Israel, its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (it is widely believed that it has chemical weapons), human rights and democracy, and charges that it is sheltering wanted Nazis.
Damascus has challenged the US on every count. It has been demanding an internationally accepted definition of terrorism and distinction between freedom fighters and resistance fighters. Over the last 15 years, it has toned down the activities of Palestinian groups after getting rid of groups like those led by Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal, a former ally of the PLO who was once described as the world's most wanted man.
Syria has asked the US to prove that Iranian arms are flowing through its territory to Lebanon. It has pointed out that it is not a signatory to the international convention on chemical weapons and therefore it is not violating any international law even if it -- hypothetically -- did have such arms.
It has also demanded that Israel prove with substantiation that Nazis are being sheltered in Syria.
However, all these challenges and affirmations did little to alleviate the pressure on Damascus if only because of the Israeli-backed American determination to "clip the Syrian wings" that challenge the American-Israeli designs in the region.
And, from the looks of things today, a head-on clash appears to be inevitable