The syrian bluff and the next step
A lot of people in my country seem disinclined to believe that the Rafik Harriri assassination was carried out by the Syrians as I believe, the Harriri family believes and the one million mourners that walked in Harriri’s funeral believe. Despite all of that, and the fact that Harriri was killed by a highly sophisticated bomb and the threat that the current Lebanese Prime Minister addressed to the opposition, some people still chose to think that the Syrians are innocent and that they are simply being implicated in all of this. Their argument is this: What do the Syrians have to gain by this? To them I say : a hold on Lebanese power. I would post my own argument, but there is this great article on Slate which kinda details why this assassination happened this way and what the Syrians meant by it. Here are the money shots: In the wake of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, Hariri played a key role in developing this property, which, in turn, made him a billionaire, a major political force in Lebanon, and a regional player with important patrons in both Saudi Arabia and Europe. Apparently, the message behind the murder of this real-estate and media giant is that no one in Lebanon really has power, Syria only leases it out. An independent extremely popular opposition leader, a Sunni man nonetheless, could really challenge that assertions that the only real power in Lebanon is the one backed by Syrians. The Syrians can’t have that. Especially with the continued international pressure that has emboldened the Lebanese opposition against them. Opposition leaders grabbed at the main chance when they saw how furious Washington was with Assad's continued support of the insurgency in Iraq. The White House has been threatening Syria for some time now and upped the ante by making the regime's occupation of Lebanon a high and very public priority in its Middle East policy. Of course, the Syrians do not want to leave Lebanon, but if they must, they at least want to depart on their own terms. In the meantime, Damascus wants the United States to shut up and remember how bad it can make things in this part of the world for American presidents and their interesting ideas. Certainly, the Syrians have not forgotten how, in 1983, they helped drive the United States from the region when a Damascus-backed militia killed 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers with a car bomb. ****************************************** For his part, however, Assad is gambling that for all its tough talk, the White House has neither the troops, the time, the energy, nor the domestic political credibility to back up its threats. The Syrians are probably not wrong. After all, what kind of meaningful action can the United States take? A missile strike against Damascus will add much to Syrian prestige in the region and little to that of Washington, unless the White House is willing to commit troops—and right now those troops are tied down in Iraq. In short, Assad has called Bush's bluff. And that’s why Assad doesn’t care that much for all of the US tough talk. He knows, that for the time being he is safe. It’s the political equivalent of playing chicken. He knows that the US won’t bomb Lebanon and won’t bomb Syria, because it will just give Bashar backing and support the conspiracy theorists who will go on and on talking about how the US killed Harriri to find an excuse to attack Syria(like it needed one with the Iraq situation). This of course would fuel the usual “pan-arabism” in the hearts of all arabs who don’t know anything about whats going on expect that the US and Israel are “EEEEEVIL”. The irony would be of course, that the only people who would be happy if Syria is attacked are the lebanese. You know, for the same reason the Kuwaitis didn’t mind the US war on Iraq at all? Anyway.. To understand the repercussions, remember that the White House has maintained that success in Iraq would have ripple effects throughout the region. As it turned out, this is true. The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq indicated that the United States meant business, a posture that encouraged the Lebanese opposition to challenge Syria. But the ripple effect also works the other way. If opposition figures are assassinated in Beirut, this is a message that, for all its power, the United States can't always be there to protect you. Even worse is that if the Bush administration does nothing about Hariri's murder, the message will be that Washington cannot and will not protect you at all. It will be very hard to get people in the region to work with the United States if everyone believes that there is no difference between sticking your neck out and handing an executioner his weapon. It will cost Washington prestige among its allies in Iraq and show convenient "friends" like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that the White House is so vulnerable there is little price to be paid for ignoring it. And that’s basically it. That’s Syria’s plan. Kill the threat before it gets way too big for you to contain. The theory is, if they killed Harriri, his death would create a power vacuum and would scare the smaller opposition leaders into towing the line with Syria. They know that the US won’t do anything really; maybe pose a couple of sanctions, but so what? It’s not like their relationship with each other was that great to begin with. And as long as they get to stay in Lebanon they don’t really care what else happens. They must be really happy now with themselves and how they are going to get away with it: Who is gonna stop them now, with their biggest threat gone? Ehhh, how about Rafik Harriri’s son? It seems that the Lebanese supporters and mourners of Harriri, both Christian and Muslim, have been trying to convince Harriri’s oldest son, Bahaeddine, to run in his father’s place in next May’s elections. Use his father’s name to carry out his legacy and spoil the plans of those who killed him. This , of course, would drive the Syrians bonkers. The change won’t be in the form of invading westerners that they could brand as “crusaders against Islam”, but carried through from within Lebanon, by a Lebanese Sunni Muslim who will be fighting for his country’s sovereignty and democracy. That would be a completely different ballgame, one that the Baathist don’t know how to win and are bound to lose. And the moment that happens in Lebanon, its effect is bound to spill over to Syria and threaten their rule there. The irony of it all would be, that even by killing Harriri, they couldn’t stop what he stood for or what he demanded. Bashar’s regime may have called America’s bluff, but by killing Harriri, they might have gotten way more then they bargained for. They may survive the Bush doctrine, but it seems highly doubtful that they will survive Harriri’s legacy, and that is more then fine by me.