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Hariri's assassination, five years on

This Valentine’s Day will mark the fifth anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s death. The former Prime Minister and 22 others were killed in an explosion near the Beirut seaside on February 14, 2005.

Hariri is often described as a strangely popular, larger-than-life figure in Lebanon. Making his fortune in business, Hariri’s popularity extended across sectarian lines. He was one of the key figures leading Lebanon’s post-Civil War reconstruction effort, and his propensity to throw around cash, mixed with his affable demeanor made him a lot of friends.

Hariri grew up relatively poor in Southern Lebanon to a family of Sunni Muslims. During Lebanon’s Civil War, opportunities were scarce for a young man, so he traveled to Saudi Arabia to seek his fortune in the construction industry. Before long,  Hariri had made important business contacts in the Saudi royal family, and his sub-contracting company benefited greatly from Saudi patronage. So close was Hariri to the Saudis that he was granted Saudi citizenship by the King himself.

Hariri returned to Lebanon to use his influence and connections to aid in the rebuilding process. His popularity began to grow due to his position controlling the hose of Saudi development money that was flooding into Lebanon, as well as his reputation for getting things done.

At a certain point however, a businessman can only accomplish so much. Rafik Hariri loved his country and he decided that the best way to help it was to get involved in politics. His success in the business world was followed by success in the political world, with Hariri eventually being elected Prime Minister – the highest political office that a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon can hold. And, as Hariri’s popularity began to grow in Lebanon, he began to draw the attention of the Syrians.

In 1976, Syria dispatched thousands of troops to Lebanon to help the country restore order during the Civil War. At the time, the PLO was using Lebanon as its base of operations to attack Israel, with Beirut as its headquarters. This situation was incredibly destabilizing for Lebanon, as the country was already dealing with sectarian violence. At first the Syrians were welcomed by many Lebanese, who viewed them as a stabilizing force. Before long, the Syrians began to wear out their welcome.

Along with the soldiers, a small army of Syrian agents descended on Lebanon, like an invasive species of plant, to weave its roots into every segment of Lebanese society. Soldiers, diplomats, businessmen and intelligence agents were dispatched throughout the country in order to reestablish Syrian influence in Lebanon and to siphon off as much money as possible back into Syria.

To understand this relationship, it must be noted that, until 1943, Lebanon had been part of Syria. For hundreds of years, first during the Ottoman Empire and then under French mandate,  the territory that constitutes modern Lebanon was a Syrian province. The Syrians do not view Lebanese independence as a permanent condition, similar to the status of the Golan Heights territory that it lost in 1967 to Israel: it’s a sore spot for the Syrians, and it has been their historical goal as a nation to re-annex the territory, something the current world political state has rendered impossible.

When the Syrian’s were invited back into Lebanon in 1976 to quell the turmoil that the PLO was causing, they viewed the occasion as a golden opportunity to begin reestablishing Syria  dominance there. Soon there were Syrian businessmen and politicians working in Lebanon to steer the country in a direction that was favorable to Syria. In addition, there was an imposing troop presence to ensure that Syrian will was obeyed and there was a fearsome intelligence apparatus established to sniff out and punish any dissent. Before long, the Syrians were the new king-makers in Lebanon, and it was difficult to accomplish anything or get elected to any major political office without their approval.

After the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, Rafik Hariri used his wealth, along with his business and political connections, to aid in the reconstruction of Lebanon. Hariri’s was a rising star in Lebanon, and when he turned to politics, he quickly rose to the level of Prime Minister. When dealing with the Syrians, at first Hariri had at least a few powerful and sympathetic ears in Damascus, but the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad in 2000 ushered in a new generation of politicians who viewed Lebanon as Syrian property, who treated its people and resources as such, and who saw no reason to accommodate Lebanese interests in the least.

In his book, “Killing Mr. Lebanon” author Nicholas Blanford asserts that Hariri recognized the political reality of Syrian influence in Lebanon, and that while he opposed some of the policies Syria had established, he always tried to work with Damascus to influence its decisions instead of trying to circumvent their authority with his own agenda. During his time as Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998 and 2000 to 2004, Hariri would routinely return from Syria dejected. In Hariri’s view, Lebanon could have been dealt with as an equal, and that there was no reason that the two countries couldn’t come to favorable agreements through cooperation.

The period following the death of Hafez Assad was a dangerous time for Lebanese politicians who were opposed to the occupation. A wave of assassinations began and,it wasn’t clear if the this was the making of Bashar Assad, son and successor to Hafez, or if it was the work of Syrian intelligence officials that were taking advantage of the young President’s lack of experience to further their own agendas.

At that same time, the United States was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Up until that time, the United States had been ambivalent towards Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, mostly due to  Syria’s status as an “ally” during America’s first encounter with Iraq in 1991. But in 2003, America and Syria were not on what one would call  friendly terms (due to Syria’s close relationship with Iran, and its hostile relationship towards Israel), and when America invaded Iraq, Damascus saw that if there was a quick success in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, then the Assad regime could be next.

In response, Syria opened up its eastern border with Iraq  to mujaheddin fighters pouring in from all over the Middle East to wage jihad against the US occupation, with the theory being that America could not turn its sights on Syria if it was bogged down with an insurgency in Iraq. This decision infuriated the Bush administration and quickly landed Syria on the newly expanded Axis of Evil list.

The anger and frustration with Syria’s occupation of Lebanon that been percolating for years was now coming to a boil. In the past, the Lebanese would have complained to the United Nations, and then Syria would flex its muscles (this included arrest, imprisonment, torture, and assassinations) in Lebanon to smother resistance. But at the time, the Security Council members didn’t care enough about Lebanon to make it an issue, and Syria went right along with its occupation without any substantial hurdles.

As cries from the international community for Syria to end its occupation in Lebanon grew louder, so did Damascus’ anger towards Rafik Hariri. In the Assad regime’s view, it was Hariri who was stoking these anti-Syria flames through his impressive list of connections. Hariri was popular with the  Bush administration, French President Jacques Chirac, and the Saudi Royal family. To the Syrians, it appeared that Hariri was mobilizing these connections against them, and they were furious. Hariri pleaded to Damascus that he was not opposed to Syrian interests in Lebanon and that he was not conspiring against them.Whether or not this was true, Hariri’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

On February 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri and several bodyguards were assassinated by car bomb while on their way to a meeting. The explosion blew the facade off the adjacent building and shook the Middle East to its core.

As previously stated, opposition to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was usually futile and was always met with force. This time however, the contemporary political climate of the world dictated a different outcome. Hariri’s assassination, originally designed to silence the most significant challenger to Syrian will, ended up being the catalyst for Syrian withdrawal.

If Damascus really was behind Hariri’s murder, it was a critical miscalculation. Within Lebanon, Hariri’s broad popularity extended across sectarian lines, and his death was painfully shocking, even by Lebanese standards. Externally, Hariri had made many powerful friends, who were now fuming over his death. As mentioned, Hariri was close with the King of Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most influential country in the Middle East. Also as mentioned, Hariri was close friends with France’s President Chirac, dating back to when he was the mayor of Paris. The writing was on the wall: this time, Syria had gone too far.

Three weeks after Hariri’s death,  Hizballah organized a massive pro-Syrian rally on March 8th in order to demonstrate that a large part of the country still supported the Syrian presence in Lebanon. But the tide had already turned, and a week later, exactly one month after Hariri’s death, an even larger rally against Syria was held. It wasn’t so much the numbers of the demonstrators, but their makeup. All of the sects were represented, as well as the silent Lebanese middle class, who usually keep to themselves in such dangerous times. It was clear that something had changed in Lebanon, and the world would no longer accept Syria’s relationship with Lebanon as it had been. The very next month, in April, Syria withdrew.

Although the prospect of shaking off an oppressive occupier was a positive step for Lebanon, the time period following the end of occupation was tumultuous. After Syria left, another wave of assassinations took place that claimed the lives of many Lebanese leaders. Also, some analysts believe that the end of Syrian occupation was a significant factor that led to the incredibly destructive 2006 War between Hizballah and Israel.

Israel itself withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, which called into question Hizballah’s continued necessity as an armed resistance. But as long as Syria was still around, the group had little reason to worry about its status in Lebanon. When Israel withdrew,  Hizballah was left without a reason to keep its arms, and when Syria withdrew, Hizballah was left without its political cover. Suddenly the group had to prove its usefulness, which turned disastrous when a small-scale military incursion into Israel quickly escalated into an all out war that cost Lebanon thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damages.

Eventually however, the chaos that followed Rafik Hariri’s murdered died down. France and the United States elected new presidents that were taking new approaches towards Syria and the Middle East. Riyadh and Damascus settled their differences, and Lebanon elected a new government in 2009, with Hariri’s son, Saad, being voted Prime Minister.

The younger Hariri recognized that Lebanon had little to gain by harboring animosity towards Syria and, as Prime Minister, he did the unthinkable by traveling to Damascus to facilitate a reconciliation. In the past year, Syria and Lebanon have opened embassies in each other’s countries and exchanged ambassadors, which is a symbolic recognition by Syria that Lebanon is indeed a separate state. And just this past week, Damascus approved a new US Ambassador to Syria, a post that had been vacant since 2005. These events are mainly due to two factors: one, that Lebanon recognizes that, as its largest neighbor, Syria and Lebanon should have a positive relationship, and two, the realization that the international community’s isolation of Syria has only pushed it closer to Iran.

Syrian influence in Lebanon may be waxing once again, but the nature of their relationship is different. While many claim that the Syrian intelligence apparatus never left, it’s not as powerful as it once was, and the most obvious evidence of occupation, the Syrian troops, are gone. Today, Syria still wields tremendous influence in Lebanon, but instead of overt force,  it seems that Damascus is forced to use diplomacy and negotiation to get what it wants. If this is true, then the end result of Hariri’s murder is that Lebanon has attained a more equal footing in relation to Syria, which has led to a more prosperous relationship for both countries. In the end, this is all Rafik Hariri ever wanted.

 

Author

Patrick Vibert
Patrick Vibert

Patrick Vibert works as a geopolitical consultant focusing on the Middle East. He has a BA in Finance and an MA in International Relations. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He lives in Washington DC and attends lectures at the Middle East Institute whenever he can.

Area of Focus
Geopolitics; International Relations; Middle East

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