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By: RICHARD REID

Syria has always seen Lebanon as one of its provinces, a part of the “Greater Syria,” a malleable almost-nation that can serve a thousand Syrian purposes. Lebanon is to Syria very much as Afghanistan is to Pakistan – a convenient back garden, to be used as needed.

So it is natural that when things go out of balance in Lebanon, Damascus will exert coercive force, either directly or through a surrogate. Few doubt that this is what happened on Valentine’s Day, 2005, when Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was blown up in Beirut by a car bomb, along with most of his armored motorcade.

State-sponsored assassination and terror are not uncommon. Most governments will practice them if they sense a tipping point or an opportunity, and believe their role will be sufficiently masked. The Russian government must have believed that when a person it now disclaims put polonium in the tea of the rogue ex-FSB agent Litvinenko in London three years ago. Apparently so did Israel’s Mossad before amateur clumsiness exposed its murder of a Hamas agent last year in a luxury Gulf hotel. In those assassinations, of course, both of the victims were themselves veteran practitioners of the black arts.

Rafiq Hariri was the opposite – as real a saving angel as anyone who has appeared on the Lebanese political scene since the country’s calamitous 1975-76 civil war. Sadly, the drawn-out aftermath of his murder now seems ready to pitch Lebanon into civil tumult again.

Not long before Hariri was killed, my wife and I were guests at an event he hosted. I had witnessed up close the safety net he had placed much of Lebanon under starting in the mid-80s, long before his political career began. The millions he had made as a businessman in Saudi Arabia were poured month after month into social services to both the Muslim west and the Christian east of Beirut – services the fractured and paralyzed government could not provide itself. He funded daily caravans of food trucks that crossed into the country; it was out of his pocket that thousands upon thousands of school tuition payments were made, and that countless university scholarships materialized, to keep classes in session despite steady carnage on all sides.

Hariri was politically conciliatory, but not pro-Syrian. His landslide election victory in 1992 would send tremors through Damascus. After the end of his premiership he continued to symbolize a more independent Lebanon. He was too robust a force to be left alone.

The Iran-backed, militarily powerful Hezbollah his a primary partner in today’s Lebanese government. A dozen of its members were called in by United Nations investigators in April for questioning about the Hariri assassination. Since then the vise of the investigation has tightened on Hezbollah, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened that his group “would not stand by” if it is accused of complicity in the assassination. Many have seen this as blackmail language, since Hezbollah, with a huge Syrian-supplied arsenal of rockets and missiles, is easily capable of toppling the government in Beirut.

Nasrallah has said as an aside that the U.N. investigation has a false focus, since it was surely Israel that carried out the assassination.

Few of the assassination’s planners may have anticipated the blowback that followed it. A furious Western outcry led by a close friend of Hariri, French President Jacques Chirac, forced Syria’s army out of Lebanon after a 29-year stay. The U.N. Security Council quickly set up a full-scale investigative apparatus, and its operatives unearthed an elaborate trail of preparations leading from Japan to Dubai and involving, over the years, the snuffing out of a decoy bomber, the disappearance of a Syrian intelligence agent arrested after arranging the planting of a diversionary bomb, and the killing of the chief Lebanese investigator. U.N. sleuths also released a recorded phone call made to a Syrian-backed former Lebanese president minutes before the blast that took Hariri’s life. Interestingly, sources claim that a key investigative breakthrough came when a perpetrator called his girlfriend and exposed what had been a closed cell phone network.

The U.N. team’s findings have been dramatic, but the investigation has had an on-and-off pace, marked by bursts of discovery followed by long lapses. Since 2005 the investigation has had a succession of three leaders, a German, a Belgian, and a Canadian. By now it is hard not to wonder how much the search has been intimidated by the fierce threats of the accused.

Fierceness has not been absent in past Syrian policy. To get a glimpse of what it and Hezbollah, its Lebanese tenant, might be capable of doing if formally accused of engineering Hariri’s death, it’s instructive to refer back to the Baathist creed of violence that has animated the history of the regime in Damascus. Government in Syria has been an al-Assad family dynasty for 40 years. Power is molded around the Baath Socialist ideology worked out in the late 1940s by the Lebanese schoolteacher Michel Aflaq, who lamented Arab disunity and had a vision of pan-Arab power, modeled along the secular lines of Italy’s and Nazi Germany’s no-nonsense fascism. Baathism became national dogma in Syria in 1970, two years after the same thing had happened in Iraq. A steely rivalry between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein developed. Both crushed all dissent at home, al-Assad spectacularly in 1982 when he used artillery, tanks, and jet bombers to put down an incipient Muslim Brotherhood rising in the northwestern Syrian city of Hama. Bulldozers finished the job in the parts of the city that were not adequately razed. There were at least 15,000 dead.

When Bashar al-Assad returned in 2000 from his ophthalmologist’s job in London to take the reins of government after the death of his father Hafez, it seemed for a while that Baathist rule in Syria might ease, and for a time it did, as Muslim Brotherhood prisoners were released and a smattering of pro-democracy demonstrations were seen. But that was a false spring. Discipline soon tightened again. In the eyes of Baath traditionalists, the need to maintain iron stability was reinforced as they looked across the Iraqi border and saw the sectarian bloodletting there. Since then the Syrian government has been a tight ship, locked down against mutiny, ready to sever any hand that tries to loosen its grip on any part of what it sees as its rightful sphere of influence – including Lebanon.

What about Syria and Turkey? The once-frigid stand-off relationship between the two countries ended six years ago when Bashar al-Assad came to Ankara on a state visit. Dealings between the two governments have warmed considerably since. This is all to the good; neighbors should work to get along. Yet it’s prudent to see at the same time that if the Hariri case drags Damascus toward the court of world opinion, those seen as its backers will be dragged in that direction, too.

Justice in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri may never be served. Those who orchestrated and carried out his killing may never be tried and put into prison. Cautious pragmatism may trump what is morally right. Energy is draining from the U.N. investigation. Harriri’s son Saad, Lebanon’s current prime minister, may need to swallow this bitterest of pills to keep his country from bursting apart. But it will take years for the air of Lebanon to clear itself of the foul smell of unpunished murder. If it ever does. Hurriyet

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