Was Rafik Hariri's assassination a Syrian hit?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 15 2005 2:41 PM

Death of a Salesman

Was Rafik Hariri's assassination a Syrian hit?

Rafik Hariri
Rafik Hariri

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Outside Rafik Hariri's home Monday evening there was no doubt in the minds of mourners—most from the former Lebanese prime minister's Sunni Muslim community—who had committed the crime. "Syria out," they cried.

The same message was echoed inside Hariri's home, where a broad alliance of groups opposed to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, Christian and Muslim, issued a statement holding "the Lebanese regime and the Syrian regime, as the authority having tutelage over Lebanon, responsible for this crime, and for other similar crimes." After the passage was read, Hariri supporters inside the room began shouting, "God is great!"

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Whether Hariri will be remembered as great is another matter. A man of remarkable energy and achievements, he was the most influential prime minister Lebanon has seen in decades, and the most successful peddler of the country's postwar success. However, he could also be overconfident, and in the days leading up to his death, several people who spoke to him noted that he didn't seem overly concerned about his safety. This was odd, as security was always at the top of his mind when he moved around in his armored-plated cars, and the political climate in Lebanon today is as bad as it's ever been since the end of the war in 1990.

Why Hariri was killed is not entirely clear. The self-made billionaire was probably helping the anti-Syrian opposition and perhaps preparing to formally join it. He privately favored passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in September 2004, calling for a withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The resolution, sponsored by the United States and France, has for months been a dagger in Syria's side, threatening to end its profitable hegemony over Lebanon. If the Syrians are forced out, they fear not only losing regional relevance and the stick of Hezbollah to wield against Israel, but also the financial and other benefits they have enjoyed during their 28-year presence. The shock could bring down the regime of Bashar Assad.

In the vast, neoclassical living rooms of Hariri's home on Monday, it was easy to see the sway of the man. He collected and promoted a large political cast of occasionally very competent yes-men. Most were there, former ministers and administrative appointees, walking aimlessly among the hundreds of other stunned onlookers milling around. Men sobbed openly, while an old woman coughed up an intermittent lament on the dead man's merits. Counting as close friends King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and French President Jacques Chirac, Hariri was often larger than the country he represented.

It wasn't always so. Hariri was born to a modest family from the southern port city of Sidon. During the 1970s he moved to Saudi Arabia, like many fellow countrymen seeking to profit from the kingdom's oil wealth. He started out as a schoolteacher and became an accountant before going into contracting. His break came in 1977, when he built the Saudi Taif Massara Hotel in record time for then-Crown Prince Fahd to host an Islamic summit. With royal patronage in hand, Hariri began to receive more lucrative projects, amassed a fortune, and soon was offered Saudi citizenship.

While Hariri mediated in the Lebanese conflict, and his companies helped in reconstruction during lulls in the fighting, it was only when the war ended that he returned home and his influence ballooned. He pushed through what many consider an unconstitutional expropriation of Beirut's destroyed old city center, handing the property over to a private company, Solidere, in which he held shares. Yet it's also true that the scheme turned the area into a highly attractive showcase, and it was probably no coincidence that those who killed Hariri did so in the prosperous hotel district he was so instrumental in rebuilding.

The bomb (which opposition sources are saying was placed under the road, not in a car) was extremely powerful, breaking windows more than a mile away. However, it was not the first attack in recent months. LastOctober, after Hariri left office, Marwan Hamadi, a respected Druse opposition figure with whom the former prime minister was close, barely survived a car-bombing. Opposition groups refused to be intimidated and recently escalated their anti-Syrian rhetoric. This prompted Syria's supporters to accuse them of treason on America's and Israel's behalf. Omar Karami, Hariri's pro-Syrian successor as premier, declared only two weeks ago, "We'll show them."

If the Syrians were responsible, their risk is great. Having alienated the Druses, they have now made an enemy of the generally mild-mannered Lebanese Sunnis. The irony is that both communities were close to Syria; violence was never required for their cooperation. But where the Syrian regime had to show toughness was with the United States and France over their demands for a Syrian withdrawal. What better way to do so than to go after those vulnerable Lebanese offering a serious alternative leadership to Syria's cronies? That, at least, is what is widely believed in Beirut.

In a statement Monday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Hariri's murder was "an attempt to stifle these efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of foreign domination." Tuesday, the Bush administration recalled its ambassador to Syria for consultations, without specifying for how long. Washington and Paris have several options before them, including going to the U.N. Security Council and perhaps imposing new sanctions on Syria. Or the United States might unilaterally do so under a piece of domestic legislation known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. But the tug of war has just started. There may be more bombs in Beirut before Syria concedes—or the Americans and French do so first.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010.

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