The car bomb that assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri rocked Beirut, but the political aftershocks could shake the entire region. The assassination has galvanized Lebanese anger towards their Syrian occupiers. But Lebanon is the crutch propping up the weak Assad regime, so the Syrians will not give up easily. If Lebanon is to be free, its people will require strong outside support. If the United States is committed to building a democratic Middle East, it should take advantage of the opportunity created by the tragedy of Hariri’s assassination and assertively support Lebanon’s democrats.
When Lebanon descended into civil war in the mid-1970s, the Syrian army entered the country, officially as peacekeepers. But they never left. In 1989, the Taif Agreement established a mechanism for their eventual withdrawal. But since then, Damascus has increased its hold in Lebanon, disarmed all of the Lebanese militias except its Hezbollah allies, placed loyalists in key positions in Lebanon’s security services, and established a network of financial deals between the elites of Damascus and Beirut. Ultimately Syria’s control rests on the combination of over 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and the enormous Syrian intelligence network that permeates Lebanese society.
Billionaire Hariri made his fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia and was the architect of Beirut’s reconstruction in the 1990s. He was a central player in the web of corruption binding the Syrian and Lebanese regimes. But when Syria forced Lebanon’s parliament to amend the constitution, allowing current president (and Hariri’s rival) Emile Lahoud to hold power for another three years, Hariri resigned. He remained in parliament as the opposition leader and called for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon. With his wealth and international stature–including a close friendship with French president Jacques Chirac (who echoed U.S. demands that Syria leave Lebanon)–Hariri could have severely undermined Syria’s control over his country.
Hariri’s murderers remain unknown. Syria and Arab pundits claim the assassination was an Israeli plot, but the Lebanese people have little doubt that Syria was responsible. Mourning ceremonies became anti-Syrian rallies. While Hariri’s assassination has united the Lebanese, it also demonstrates how far Syria will go to hold on to Lebanon.
Controlling Lebanon is integral to the Syrian regime’s survival. The Syrian economy stays afloat by plundering Lebanon and controlling the Beqaa Valley drug trade. But the Damascene stranglehold over Lebanon may be even more important ideologically. Syria’s Baathists derive their legitimacy from the concept of Bilad al-Sham, or “Greater Syria,” which includes Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and part of Turkey. Relinquishing control of Lebanon would deprive the shaky Syrian regime of its raison d’etre, as well as its preferred venue for attacking Israel. This blow to Syria would also be a blow to Iran, particularly by denying Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah its base of operations. Consequently, Iran and Syria announced their “united front.” Wresting Lebanon from Syria would change Middle Eastern geopolitics and advance democracy. But it will not be easy.
Syria is already subject to harsh U.S. sanctions for its decades of support for terrorism–most recently manifest in the last bombing in Tel Aviv and in Syria’s ongoing support for the Iraqi insurgency–leaving the U.S. with limited additional options. Also, the Syrian regime is capable of subtlety. When U.N. Resolution 1559, calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, caught Damascus by surprise last September. they quickly staged a number of military convoys for al-Jazeera to portray a withdrawal that never really happened.
Handing over Saddam’s half-brother to Iraqi security replays the classic Syrian gambit of providing the U.S. with some intelligence cooperation to deflect the consequences of its role as a regional troublemaker.
The upcoming spring elections will be a crucial opportunity for Lebanon’s opposition. Inspired by the free elections in Ukraine and Iraq, the Lebanese opposition is launching a “peaceful uprising for independence.”
Meanwhile, Damascus has also taken its lessons from the Ukraine example and is calculating how to shape this spring’s Lebanese parliamentary elections through their unfettered access to official Lebanese institutions. The present pro-Syrian government’s resignation is a short-term maneuver to defuse the situation and buy time until internal and international pressures fade.
If the Lebanese are to shake off Syria’s occupation, the U.S. and the international community must use every means at their disposal to ensure that Lebanon’s elections are truly open and to press for a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence operatives. To do any less would miss the opportunity created by Hariri’s assassination, consign the Lebanese to more occupation, and betray the American vision of a democratic Middle East as being mere rhetoric.