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The Trouble with Syria

7 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary

Rafiq Hariri was a bold, self-made billionaire but a prudent politician. Syrian troops occupied his country and bossed its politics, yet during two terms as Lebanon’s dynamic Prime Minister, he was careful never to oppose Syria head on. When he was summoned to Damascus last summer to endorse changes in his country’s constitution that would allow Lebanon’s Syria-controlled puppet President to remain in power, he bowed to the demand despite his strong opposition. When he returned to Beirut with his arm in a white sling, wags joked that he had undergone a painful arm twisting. But some close to Hariri had another explanation: the sling was his theatrical way of signaling his disagreement with Syrian policies. Instead it may have signed his death warrant.

More than anyone, Hariri was responsible for resurrecting Lebanon from the chaos and blight of its bloody civil war, which ravaged the country from 1975 until 1990. During his tenure, gleaming hotels and apartment towers sprang up along Beirut’s Mediterranean shore. Perhaps that is why it was there, on a bend in the famed seafront corniche just by the five-star Phoenicia Hotel, that a thunderous explosion blew apart Hariri’s armor-plated convoy, killing him and 14 others. As the blast showered the pavement with broken glass and sent a column of black smoke into the sky, suspicion quickly focused on the country that has used political assassination to maintain its dominion over Lebanon for three decades: Syria. Though Damascus denied involvement, anti-Syrian emotions were unleashed in the streets of Beirut, where tens of thousands of mourners from across Lebanon’s political spectrum turned Hariri’s funeral into a freedom march, demanding an end to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

The Hariri assassination could set off wider reverberations. The possibility that Syria was to blame was reason enough for the Bush Administration to turn up the heat in its campaign of pressure against a regime it has long considered a festering sore in the region. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top officials last week ticked off a list of grievances against the Baathist regime of President Bashar Assad, from Syria’s destabilizing presence in Lebanon to its alleged support of insurgents in Iraq to its funding and protection of terrorist groups like Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Bush said Syria “is out of step” with U.S. policy in the region, while members of Congress called for the U.S. to punish the Assad government for its litany of misdeeds. The strategy isn’t hard to read. As Washington continues its push for change in the Middle East, taking a hard line with Syria is now part of the formula. “Syria is feeling pretty lonesome,” says Richard Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, “and I guess people in Washington think that’s a good state of mind to have them in.”

Even before the hit on Hariri, U.S. patience with Damascus was dwindling. Syria’s support for militant groups that oppose Israel, as well as its close alliance with Iran, has long been an irritant to Washington. But reports of Syrian meddling in Iraq have provoked the most rage. For a time, U.S. diplomats thought they were making headway in persuading Damascus to crack down on the money and manpower the Bush Administration charges is flowing across Syria’s border to insurgents in Iraq. But a Pentagon official told TIME that the U.S. believes Syrian military officers went to Fallujah to assist insurgents before the U.S. assault on the city last fall. The official says it is “implausible” that the Syrian government was unaware of the officers’ activities. In January, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage traveled to Damascus and gave Assad a list of 34 former Iraqi Baath officials allegedly supporting the insurgency from Syria that the U.S. wanted the regime to round up. A senior U.S. official tells TIME that the U.S. has pressed Syria to arrest Sulayman Khalid Darwish, a Syrian who Washington charges is not only the chief banker to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist mastermind in Iraq, but also one of his top logistical agents and recruiters. The official says Darwish sends money “across the Syrian border in vehicles driven by couriers carrying bags of cash” to be delivered to al-Zarqawi’s personal aides. Assad’s response to U.S. demands, says an authoritative official, has been tepid.

U.S. officials say the harsh rhetoric last week was mainly intended to get Assad’s attention, as were hints that the U.S. might authorize its troops in Iraq to conduct “hot pursuit” of insurgents across the border into Syria. The U.S. teamed up with France, long an influence in Lebanon, last fall to push through a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for all “foreign forces”–meaning Syria–to quit Lebanon. Damascus ignored it. French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of Hariri’s, consoled the family in Beirut last week and may be more inclined to put real muscle behind the resolution. Without the broad backing of Europe, Washington has little leverage of its own over Syria. The Administration imposed punitive economic sanctions in May 2004 and could ratchet up the bans a notch or two. But international sanctions from Syria’s main trading partners would pack a lot more punch. Although the U.S. has recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a symbolic show of displeasure at Hariri’s murder, European nations that prefer to engage with enemies rather than isolate them seem unlikely to follow suit.

Syria has more immediate worries in Lebanon itself. Outrage at the assassination threatens its long domination there and could even fuel opposition to the Baath regime in Damascus. For nearly three decades Syria has kept a tight grip on its client state, exercised through the 14,000 military and intelligence forces still based around Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. But opposition to the Syrian presence has grown. Damascus made a serious miscalculation last August when it manipulated the constitution. Hariri resigned in protest and quietly backed the U.N. resolution sponsored by France and the U.S. calling on Syria to depart. Since then, Hariri appeared to be joining political forces with the opposition to dominate parliamentary elections scheduled for May, in what would have amounted to a referendum on Syria’s occupation.

The U.S. prefers an orderly Syrian withdrawal that would give international and Lebanese forces time to fill the security void. But the emotions stirred up by Hariri’s death have raised the prospect of a far messier outcome. Many Lebanese believe the killing was an attempt by Damascus to halt the snowballing challenge to its hegemony. Hariri’s death has galvanized the anti-Syria opposition. “There has been a real and dramatic change,” says former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel. In Damascus, Syrian citizens wondered whether Lebanese rage over Hariri’s death might provoke insurgent attacks against Syrian troops, which could reignite Lebanon’s civil war. The blast in Beirut may yet consume more than just the life of Rafiq Hariri. –Reported by George Baghdadi and Scott MacLeod/ Damascus; Nicholas Blanford/ Beirut; Sally B. Donnelly, Elaine Shannon and Adam Zagorin/ Washington; and James Graff/Paris

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