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15 February 2005

Talk about chutzpah... and who killed Hariri?

Now it has to take some serious nerve for the White House press secretary Scott McClellan to stand there - with a straight face -repeatedly condemning the "foreign occupation" of Lebanon by Syria which is minute compared to our occupation of Iraq. He spoke of... "its continued foreign occupation" ... "efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of foreign domination" ... "people of Lebanon deserve the freedom to choose their leaders free of intimidation, terror and foreign occupation" ... "to restore Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation" ... and so on. [see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/02/20050214-6.html#2 ]
, as though a few hundred miles away we were not engaged in a vastly larger, vastly more unpopular, and vastly more violent occupation ofIraq. Obviously the White House thinks much more of Lebanese Arabs than it does Iraqi Arabs. I bet the Iraqis would like "the freedom to choose their leaders free of intimidation, terror and foreign occupation" too.

Anyway, the real question is - who was really responsible for the murder of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon and why.

The official claim of responsibility came from a completely unknown group calling itself the "Support and Jihad in Syria and Lebanon" and claiming the assassination was in reaction to Hariri's ties to the Saudi royal family. However, virtually everyone has dismissed this as nonsense. Such a Sunni Islamist group would inevitably view Syria -which has a firm track record of brutal suppression of Sunni Islamists (best exemplified by the Homs Massacre) - as much more of a threat than a Lebanese anti-Syrian politician. Hariri, in fact, was largely seen as a potential ally in getting the Syrians out of Lebanon. So the idea of Sunni Islamists (i.e. al-Qaeda types) being involved is utterly nonsensical.

Israel and the US Right was quick to immediately blame Syria. The argument being that Hariri represented a real threat to Syria's continued "open invitation" to keep troops in the Bekaa Valley and with elections coming up, Syria decided to eliminate this threat. While none can really argue that the Syrian military would have any qualms about murdering an opposition threat, the method and circumstances make this very unlikely.

Realistically Syria has been under the gun for over a year now, trying desperately to avoid giving the US an excuse to attack, trying to keeps its borders with Iraq closed, reaching out for closer collaboration with the EU (they just entered the EU Mediterrean trade bloc), and better international relations in general. Although the military continues to run Syria, with the succession of Western-educated Bashar al-Assad, after the death of his father Hafiz, Syria has been working very hard to improve its international image, even going so far as to actively collaborate with the United States by sharing intelligence and even holding US abducted detainees.

Further, the Syrians have an exhaustive network of sympathizers and supporters in Lebanon, spearheaded by the sitting pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. If Syria felt that Hariri represented such a threat that he had to be murdered, they could have gotten too him much easier and much quieter. The sheer drama of the massive bombing in Lebanon runs in DIRECT opposition to Syria's interests in the country. Right now, especially with the US continuing to exert massive pressure on other countries to isolate Syria, it is very much in Syria's interest to have a very quiet and docile Lebanon and to utterly de-emphasize the continuing Syria presence in the Bekaa Valley.

There is the possibility that other Lebanese factions could have been behind this, in a deliberate attempt to put Syria in the spotlight. This is not impossible, but in the wake of the massive civil war that tore Lebanon apart in the late 1970's and throughout the 1980's, the idea that a Lebanese faction would risk re-starting the civil war through such a massive bombing is also extremely unlikely. Make no mistake about it, there is a strong movement in Lebanon to see the Syrians leave, but at no point has this movement resorted to violence, quite specifically because if anyone on Earth knows how violence can spiral out of control, it is the people of Lebanon. So this seems highly unlikely.

Hizb-ut-Allah remains active resisting the Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms district and would never interfere directly in Lebanese politics without the permission of Syria, and as noted above, this is a disaster for Syria. The Palestinian refugees have been effectively muzzled since the end of the Lebanese civil war, and would have nothing to gain by the Hariri assassination in any possible respect. So these two can also be ruled out.

Some have argued that the US, or a US proxy, was responsible in order to highlight the Syrian occupation and to try to gain international support for stronger measures against Syria. And the White House's response certainly seems to lend some weight to this notion. However, this is ultimately predicated on the suggestion that the US intends to either invade Syria, or occupy Lebanon (to isolate Syria) and neither of these ideas are very realistic. There is no secret about the strain that Iraq is putting on us - not to mention the cost - nor is there any doubt that a US occupation of either Lebanon or Syria would be just as costly, just as unpopular, and would develop into just as much of a quagmire as Iraq has. Further, neither Syria nor Lebanon really have anything for us to loot, i.e. oil. A big part of the case for war in Iraq was that it would cost us nothing because Iraqi oil would pay for it all - but no such argument can be made for Syria or Lebanon. And finally, we've already been chased out of Lebanon once and so we know just how easy it is for that entire country to lapse into utter anarchy. For years we've quietly supported the Syrian influence in Lebanon specifically because they help keep the peace.

So, at least in my opinion, I would suggest that it is very unlikely that we (as in the US) is behind this.

So this leaves Israel. Of course Iran and some others automatically blamed Israel, and this is virtually routine - almost anything that happens mysteriously gets blamed on Israel. However, in this particular case, there is in fact a degree of viability to the charge. Since 9/11, Israel and its lobby in the US has been talking non-stop about how evil Syria is, how it supports terrorism, and so on and so forth. Such pressures resulted in the Syria Accountability Act (a "paper sanction"since it is unilateral and we have virtually no trade to sanction) and so on. Further, most people in Washington recognize this pressure for what it is, an Israeli effort to get the US to take care of one its problems for it. Syria poses no threat to the US, has collaborated with us in the war against the Islamists (Syria hates them more than we do, and has been much more aggressive in attacking them), and has nothing to offset the cost of attacking them. The US has no direct interest whatsoever in attacking Syria.

However, this is not the case for Israel, for whom Syria represents the last of its primary neighboring military threats. Israel can't take Syria out itself because Syria has massive stockpiles of fully legal chemical weapons and the Scuds to deliver them. Just a few chemical-laden Scuds in Tel-Aviv and Israel loses its "demographic battle" against the native Palestinians over night. However, if the US were to attack Syria, perhaps Syria would direct its weapons against the US forces in Iraq instead of Israel.

Further, Israel has an established and absolutely undeniable history of using car bombs to either kill people its wants killed or to achieve various political goals. Like Syria, they still maintain a massive network of employees and sympathizers in Lebanon, meaning they had access; and they are the only ones thus far to benefit in any respect by the assassination, by getting the White House to suddenly take a far more aggressive stance against Syria. Finally, Sharon has a real need to show the electorate that he can get the US to serve Israeli interests before his "disengagement" scheme is implemented with the US as mediators (i.e. he needs to show that the US will remain completely dedicated to Israel, allowing him to dictate whatever terms to the Palestinians).

So, who is really responsible? No one seems to really know. But thus far, the only suggested party to benefit - and the only one likely to benefit anytime soon - is Israel. Of course that in of itself doesn't mean Israel did it, but it certainly begs the question.

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