I just returned from Lebanon, where I spent the last month enjoying the nightlife, the good food and wine, the historical sites like Baalbek, and the temperate Mediterranean weather. It’s not yet clear whether Syria, which has spent more than a quarter of a century in that beautiful country, will be leaving soon, too.
I was working on the first entry in a weeklong “Well-Traveled” series about my tours through Lebanon on Monday morning when I heard that Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister, had been assassinated in Beirut. Even though some Arabic Web sites are suggesting that Israel is behind the murder, and a previously unknown jihadist group has claimed it killed Hariri because he supported the Saudi regime, it is almost certain that Syrian security services are culpable.
Hariri, who resigned his post in October to protest Syria’s decision to extend the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, had cast his lot with the growing body of Lebanese opposition figures. Most of them are Christian, though Druse leader Walid Jumblatt has in the last several months perhaps been Syria’s most vocal critic. Agents working for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, assassinated Jumblatt’s father Kemal in 1977, so the son knows he has a lot to lose. Perhaps Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who in the past had been close to Damascus, thought he was immune. The place chosen for his death will remind everyone that the Syrians have a vicious sense of irony. His motorcade was immolated between the five-star Phoenecia Hotel and the as-yet-unfinished St. George Hotel and Yacht Club, which abuts the city’s famous seaside corniche, where residential, retail, and hotel properties fetch hefty sums of money. 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.
Clearly, this is a setback for the Lebanese opposition movement. While it’s true that the opposition was initially galvanized last fall when Syria changed Lebanon’s electoral laws allowing Lahoud another term, “sister Syria” has visited many indignities on its sibling over the years. The Lebanese opposition has materialized now largely in response to American and European pressure. It’s an index of how bad Syria really is that President Bashar Assad’s regime got the United States and France to agree on policy, as they did with 2004’s U.N. Security Resolution 1559, demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon immediately. And yet, arguably, what has most emboldened Lebanese opposition figures is the presence of U.S. forces on the Syrian border in Iraq.
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.
Some hopeful Lebanese observers believe that the Assad regime has pushed its luck too far with Hariri’s murder and will pay the consequences. Europe and the United States, these optimists hold, will make good on their promise that political assassinations will signal an “irrevocable divorce with the international community,” and that, unlike his predecessors, the current American president has the grit to stand up to Syria.
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.
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.
The Iraqi elections, though a landmark moment in the Arab world, were also an anomalous blip on the screen of Middle East history. The Syrians are making a very powerful argument about their vision of the region. U.S. interests and the lives of our friends and potential allies depend on our making an equally strong case.