Death of A Pragmatist and An Strategic Axis

From controversy traps to assassination attempts these are the ‘penalties’ of success; Rafiq Hariri knew it all. To counter the controversies, he was gradually emerging as the Middle East’s leading media baron, and had set up television networks and bought into Lebanese and Arab newspapers. To off-set assassination plots he had elaborate security arrangements. In July 2001 the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin had reported, “When Lebanon’s billionaire prime minister travels around Beirut, everyone takes notice. His limousine is equipped with a device designed to thwart would be car bombers by deactivating nearby cell phones, leaving a continuous trail of irritated bystanders in its wake. Whenever he leaves his residence, three decoy motorcades roam the streets to confuse would be assassins.” But on February 13 2005 one assassin was left unconfused.

Hariri is dead. A Lebanese-born Saudi national and the man who led Lebanon’s reconstruction after the 15 year long civil war as Lebanon’s Prime Minister for an entire decade, was aware of his vulnerability. If he had the popular vote of the Lebanese to lead Lebanon’s reconstruction, enjoyed Washington’s support and perhaps Israel’s confidence in seeking greater autonomy from Syria, Saudi patronage for his politics and French support of his brand of Lebanese nationalism, Hariri also had powerful detractors within Lebanon’s military -“dominated establishment, within the old guard in Damascus, the anti-US and anti-Israeli armed groups in the region and even among the old thinkers within the Israeli establishment. One of them finally ‘got him.’

Hariri was Lebanon’s poster-boy for a rag-to-riches story. The son of a small farmer in Lebanon, and almost a college graduate, he was an active member of the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM). As a 21 year old Hariri arrived in Saudi Arabia to work. From accounting jobs to working in a construction company, from a foreigner to a royalty-rewarded citizenship in 1978, and from scarcity to amazing abundance, by the early 1980’s, Hariri had become one of the 100 richest men in the world and his business empire expanded to include a network of banks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as companies in insurance, publishing, light industry, and other sectors. He headed Solidaire- the multi-billion dollar construction company and died as one of the world’s richest men.

In 1979, Hariri founded the Islamic Institute of Higher Education in his native town of Sidon. That same year, he established the Hariri Foundation for Culture and Higher Education, which has paid the tuition fees for thousands of Lebanese students at universities in Lebanon, Europe and the United States. At Harvard University he invested millions and instituted the Rafiq Hariri chair of Professor of International Political Economy.

Hariri’s immense political clout matched his economic power. Saudi money and his powerful connections with the Lebanese and Syrian elite saw him return to Lebanon as the technocrat Prime Minister in 1992.

Like others of his ilk Harriri invested in Lebanon’s power scene. He was the chief financier of 1989 Taif National Reconciliation , he constructed buildings for the influential "pro bono" in the country and financed cultural and intellectual activities. Within Lebanon his millions changed hands to end political deadlocks among militias and political figures. And in Europe reports claimed Harriri had invested millions of francs in Chirac’s election campaign.

His first stint as Prime Minister ended by 1998. The Lebanese economy was on the verge of catastrophe and the Syrians began to see Hariri as a liability. As a result of Hariri’s economic mismanagement led an increase of Lebanon’s national debt from $2.5 billion to $18.3 billion, and shrinking of economic growth from 8% in 1994 to under 2% in 1998. During his tenure in office, Hariri became Lebanon’s largest real estate owner. However Harriri’s 1998 exit led to worsening of the economic situation.

In 2000 Harriri came back as Prime Minister. By then nationally, regionally and globally Harriri straddled across political, ideological and power divides. If Washington engaged and the Saudis trusted him Harriri reached out to the Iranians. In 2003, first time in 25 an Iranian president visited Beirut on the invitation of Harriri the Prime Minister. “President Khamenai represents moderate Islam ” he had said welcoming his guest.

Although less acknowledged Hariri also qualifies as the poster-boy for Middle Eastern political pragmatism. A man who had vigorously cultivated his Syrian base in the eighties and nineties had began pragmatic distancing by 2000. He had then spoken about his belief in the "shared destiny" of Lebanon and Syria. In power he controlled economic matters while security was Lebanese establishment and Syria rulers. A decade later Hariri changed positions. On February 15, Hariri told a group of investors in Paris that there would be no more cross-border operations by Hezbollah. "We have a clear agreement with our Syrian brothers in this matter," he said, "After a Hizbullah operation Hariri’s newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, questioned whether Lebanon can "bear the consequences of such an operation and its political, economic and social impacts." On January 2, he publicly declared that Aoun would not be arrested if he returns from exile in France. "I guarantee that he will not be arrested," he pledged on state-run television. Hariri also opened communication with American officials.

Last September the political controversy over the Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud led to Harriri’s resignation. The Lebanese parliament passed a constitutional amendment allowing Emile Lahoud a three year extension by a vote of 96 to 26. Lebanon’s army chief from 1988 to 1999 and president since 1999, Damascus ensured Lahoud get his three year extension.

The Lahoud issue heightened the polarization over the Syrian connection. Washington played its card with French and Algerian support. In September UNSC resolution 1559 called for withdrawal of Syrian troops. Harriri resigned as Prime Minister. He supported the withdrawal call.

In the US and Israeli calculation, the undoing of the Syrian-Lebanese connection has been a necessary pre-requisite for resolving the Palestine issue. Israel always maintained this connection was a security threat to Israel.

The thirty year old Syrian-Lebanese connection was a direct outcome of Israel’s attack, invasion and subsequent direct and indirect military occupation of Lebanon from 1976 onwards. Israel placed 1000 troops and supported the South Lebanon Army. In the eightiesIsraeli troops led by Ariel Sharon massacred 2000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shattila camps. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1979.

Following the death of Lebanon’s symbol of pragmatic nationalism, there will be political turmoil within Syria. However external elements including the US and France will indirectly intervene to ensure that chaos is short-lived. Meanwhile the Harriri assassination will gravely damage the thirty year old Syria-Lebanon connection. Indeed this one individual’s death may mark the unraveling of this three-decade old connection which had far-reaching strategic implications for the entire region. Israel, against whose aggression this connection was established, is likely to benefit the most from its unraveling.

In recent months Washington has relentlessly accused Damascus of supporting terrorism in Iraq and in Israel. The US got the UNSC resolution demanding Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon. The Syrian influence can potentially impact on four current Middle East events; the Palestine-Israel Peace talks, the May elections in Lebanon, the Iraq situation and the future of Lebanese Hizbullah. The US has already led the call for an end to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. In fact the US has been more threatening. It has said it will consult with UNSC members about taking punitive measures against the culprits and to push for an end to Syrian occupation.

America through the UN will ensure a close monitoring of the Lebanese election process to prevent Syrian influence or manipulation. In fact the assassination has already unleashed a strong anti-Damascus political energy in Lebanon as all opposition parties have blamed the pro-Syrian president and Damascus for the assassination. Syrian President Assad’s condemnation that the assassination was a “horrendous criminal act”, his information minister’s statement that “Syria regards this as an act of terrorism and a crime that seeks to destabilise Lebanon,” or Lahoud’s commitment to get to the assassins do not cut much ice.

Syria will find it difficult to resist US and UN calls for troop withdrawal. The justification that Beirut wants the troops will not help. Syria, under constant threat of censure, sanctions and even attack, may find it difficult to defy the US demand. Troop withdrawal will also weaken the Hizbullah militia that was greatly responsible for the May 2000 withdrawal of Israeli troops. But as Washington re-engineers that Middle East, politically and militarily, like all else Hizbullah’s closing time too has come.

In Hariri the Lebanese have lost a man, even if controversial, who had proven his ability to negotiate the complex strategic pathways to Washington, Tel Aviv, Damascus and Paris. The immediate turmoil notwithstanding Lebanon is unlikely to slip into any prolonged chaos. Indeed Lebanon has mysteriously lost the one man who could have led the country away from the shadow of Israel and of Syria. Still Lebanon’s political scene will progress, maybe with another Hariri, maybe a Michel Aoun.

The truth about the assassin of Rafiq Hariri may never be known. Yet in the Lebanese narrative Syria may figure as the key culprit with Lebanese allies. For the Lebanon-Syria connection, the sunset has begun, accruing some advantage to the Lebanese seeking greater autonomy and democracy. Yet maximum advantage will go to Israel; first it was the PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s exit and now the unraveling of Tel Aviv’s most hated Damascus-Beirut connection.

Meanwhile as the US proceeds with its plan of re-engineering of the Middle East, it is both confronting resisatnce and finding partners. These are these are ‘grey’ realiteis of our times.