Now here’s a tricky one. When Rafiq Hariri, the erstwhile ally of Syria but latterly a quiet but effective opponent, was assassinated by a huge car bombing in central Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005, I was convinced that Syria was not the guilty party. I knew the regime could be brutal and stupid, but I didn’t think it could be quite that stupid. As expected, the assassination of Lebanon’s best-connected multimillionaire (and the man who, as prime minister, had rebuilt Beirut after the civil war and 1982 Israeli invasion) led to massive anti-Syrian protests in Beirut and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.
There were also massive pro-Syrian demonstrations, called by Hizbullah, which were not covered in nearly as much loving detail by the Western media. But in any case, it was a good thing that Syria pulled out. Although the Syrian presence had been one of the factors preventing an Israeli-Phalangist takeover of Lebanon, and although Syria had contributed to ending the civil war and reconciling Lebanon’s warring factions, its clumsy militarism, corruption and police state interference naturally alienated many Lebanese, probably the majority. What was so damaging to both Syria and Lebanon was not that the withdrawal happened but that it happened like this, like a particularly bad-tempered divorce.
If the assassination of Hariri was ordered by Syria, the regime had scored a historic own goal. But I was gradually persuaded that this is just what happened. The inexperience of the president, gangster-style jockeying for influence and money within the regime, sectarian tensions between regime Alawis and Sunnis, underestimation of the Lebanese Sunni response: all of these seem to have contributed to the decision to kill Hariri.
I’m still, of course, not sure. America and Israel were the big winners from the realignement following Hariri’s death, and a network of Israeli-sponsored agents was recently uncovered in Lebanon. But, most probably, I was wrong when I presumed Syrian innocence.
So it’s with a certain lack of confidence that I make the following claim: Syria just could not have been so stupid as to assassinate Pierre Gemayel this afternoon, not now, not again. The failure of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians to build a functioning democracy, and Israel’s failed war against Lebanon this summer, had given the advantage back to Syria’s Lebanese allies. An alliance of Hizbullah, Amal, and the popular Christian General Michel Aoun is about to start a peaceful protest movement to change the unpopular pro-Western government. Everything has been going Syria’s way. If Lebanon shapes up as a Syrian ally, but independent of Syrian interference, and also stable and at peace with itself, this would be the best outcome for both countries. It would also complete the total failure of Israeli-American plans for Lebanon. But the Gemayel assassination, at a time when sectarian tensions are already high, threatens civil war. This was the thinly disguised aim of Israel’s (and America’s) war this summer. So I’m pointing the finger at them. But as I’ve said, I may be wrong.