Vol. 5 Num 263 Tue. February 22, 2005  

Hariri's assassination and its implications

The tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who ruled Lebanon for 10 out of the 14 years since the end of civil year in 1991, has once again pushed the war-torn country to great uncertainties. Memories of 15-year-old disastrous civil war are still fresh in the minds of the Lebanese people, and war-damaged ghost townships of Beirut still haunt them. The killing of Hariri not only threatens peace in Lebanon, but peace in the entire Middle East region, and the recent cease-fire agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

A brilliant political strategist and the dominant leader of the Sunni faction, Hariri had all along performed a fine balancing act among the different Lebanese factions and at the same time, tried to contain "big brother" Syria's influence in his country. Last October, the trouble came to the fore when the Lebanese Parliament, under heavy pressure from Damascus, extended the term of office of President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally, by another three years through a constitutional amendment. Hariri protested this move and resigned as Prime Minister. He was quickly replaced by pro-Syrian Omar Karami. He openly joined the populist move calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, believed to be close to 15,000, out of Lebanon. This tactical move further enhanced his popularity by drawing away support from his opponents, and he emerged as the favourite contender at the upcoming elections in May.

Hariri was more than a politician. This self-made construction billionaire was also central to the country's reconstruction process, and was largely responsible for almost restoring Beirut's status as the trade and financial center of the Middle East. In addition to construction and other businesses, he also largely controlled media through his ownership of television stations and newspapers. Hariri used his financial clout to forge closer personal ties with the leaders of oil-rich Arab Kingdoms as well as European leaders. Consequently, more and more foreign investments were pouring into Lebanon. The newly reconstructed sea front Corniche, where he was killed, was beginning to be like "Paris of the Middle East" again.

The question arises: Who killed him? A previously unknown group calling itself "Support and jihad" claimed to have carried out the bombing. A bearded man in a turban appeared in a video on popular Arab Television network Al Jazeera and described the killing as "just punishment" for Hariri's close ties with the Saudi government. Hariri, a dual Lebanese and Saudi citizen, made his fortune in the construction business in Saudi Arabia during his two-decade long stay there, and was reportedly close to the Saudi rulers [a closeness he often used as counterweight against Damascus]. The Lebanese authorities have reportedly identified the self-proclaimed killer as a Palestinian who has been living in West Beirut and who is suspected of having links with Al-Qaeda.

In the charged Lebanese atmosphere, many blame Damascus of having carried out, or at least having a hand in, Hariri's assassination. Damascus vehemently denied such charges, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sensing serious diplomatic repercussions, was among the first to condemn the murder. The Syrian spokesman also emphasised that "to create instability in Lebanon is certainly not in Syria's interest at this time". Rime Altaf, a Middle East expert at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, said "Syria could not have possibly wanted this", and added "it would be a case of shooting yourself in the foot. It clearly is the pro- and anti-Syrian forces at play, but rationally and logically whoever did this was trying to get the Syrians into more trouble."

Not withstanding such denials, the funeral procession for the former Premier turned into an anti-Syrian demonstration, and thousands of mourners openly called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. Earlier, Hariri's family turned down Lebanese Government's proposal for a State funeral and asked the latter to stay away from the burial ceremonies.

Washington-Damascus ties have generally been strained, as Syria, in the absence of a commitment from Tel Aviv regarding return of the occupied territory of Golan Heights, was not willing to join the peace process. When Bashar succeeded Hafez al-Assad he made some overtures, but by then Rabin was dead and so was the peace process. After Iraq invasion of March 2003, Washington started blaming Damascus for "harboring terrorists" within its borders and for "turning a blind eye to the flow of weapons and insurgents into Iraq."

Taking advantage of the situation, Washington came close to blaming Syria's presence in Lebanon for Hariri's murder and withdrew their Ambassador as an expression of its "profound outrage" at the killing. Outmanoeuvred, Syria turned to its loyal ally Iran and, after a quick Summit-level meeting in Tehran, both sides declared their resolve to jointly face the threat from their common adversary, Washington. Earlier, both sides had blamed Tel Aviv for fishing in troubled water and for instigating United States to take military action against Syria. It may be recalled, Syria was the only Arab country to side with Iran during the latter's nine-year war with Iraq, and both the countries had maintained hard-line against Tel Aviv. After the Iraq War, however, Syria had somewhat modified its earlier stand and had expressed its interest in improving its ties with Washington. Tehran had not shown any such interest.

Both sides, nonetheless, assiduously cultivated France, Germany and other EU countries. So far Tehran has received sympathetic EU response on its alleged nuclear programme. Historically, France has also maintained especially close ties with Damascus and Beirut, but Syria received a big jolt when Paris joined Washington and others at the Security Council a few months ago in the adoption of a resolution calling for withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. It is speculated that after his resignation from the Premiership, Hariri had persuaded his close personal friend French President Chirac to join in the call for the withdrawal. Renewed US pressure, and isolation from their traditional EU allies, might push Syria more towards Iran than ever before. Isolation of Syria will not be in the long-term interest of the West. As the Arab dictum goes, "You can't have war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can't have peace in the Middle East without Syria."

In this heated atmosphere, the first thing to do should be to diffuse tensions and to undertake a credible international investigation to find the actual perpetrators of the crime, as called for by the UN Security Council last week. Election process, which has just started, has to be maintained and a fresh government with the renewed popular mandate should take charge. Syria, on its part, has to comply with the Security Council resolution regarding withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon. As front line states, developments in occupied territories have a direct bearing on Lebanon and Syria. The recent Palestinian-Israel ceasefire agreement marks the beginning of a long-awaited move for resumption of the peace process. Washington has to make more sustained and credible moves to make a breakthrough in the peace process it wants restore its ties with the Muslim countries.

During my Ambassadorial tenure, I had series of interactions with Hariri, and was simply impressed with his pragmatic and practical approach to all key regional and international issues. In my first meeting with Hariri, I had recalled with deep appreciation that Lebanon had been the only Arab country to allow the opening of "Bangladesh Information Centre" during our War of Independence. He had smiled and had said that Lebanon has always stood by the oppressed people in their quest for freedom and independence even though they had to pay a heavy price for such a commitment. Bangladesh enjoyed a soft corner in his heart, and he had personally helped in the recruitment of thousands of our construction workers to take part in Lebanon's massive reconstruction process. As a friend of Lebanon, we hope the country comes out of the present ordeal soon.

Syed Muazzem Ali, a former Foreign Secretary, has served as Bangladesh Ambassador to Lebanon, Syria and Iran, based in Tehran [1995-98].