This article originally appears in The American Thinker
The report released by the United Nations today that details Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri reads like a bad spy novel. It seems unbelievable, but the facts are clear; so many people were involved in the conspiracy to kill the popular Lebanese nationalist that it was inevitable that the truth would eventually come out.
The list of accomplices is staggering. Not only Syrian President Bashar Assad himself, who personally threatened the life of Hariri by telling him in a meeting on August 26, 2004 he would â€œbreak Lebanon over your headâ€ unless Hariri backed an extension of the term of office of Lebanonâ€™s puppet President Emil Lahoud for three years, but also the Syrian intelligence service, a faction of the Lebanese armed forces loyal to Syria, and even the personal bodyguards of Hariri himself.
The detailed report was authored by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis and involved more than 400 interviews and a review of more than 16,000 pages of documents. Among those interviewed was Ghazi Kanaan, the former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, who committed suicide last week under suspicious circumstances. President Assad declined to be interviewed, and interviews with top Syrian cabinet officials only seemed to confirm the extent of the conspiracy. According to Mehlis, these top government officials gave â€œuniform answersâ€ that contradicted the weight of evidence.
One other thing that the Mehlis investigation found was that Syrian influence on the day-to-day operation of the Lebanese government was â€œpervasiveâ€ and was managed by an extensive network of Syrian intelligence officials. While this comes as no surprise, it is shocking to read in black and white the bullying from Damascus that the Lebanese people had to endure for more than a quarter century.
In an interview with Haririâ€™s son Saad who was recently elected to the Lebanese parliament, investigators got a flavor of Bashar Assadâ€™s brutality as well as some insight into the extent to which Lebanon was treated like the personal fiefdom of the Syrian President:
Saad said: â€œI discussed with my father, the late Rafik Hariri, the extension of President Lahoudâ€™s term. He told me that President Bashar Assad threatened him telling him: â€œThis is what I want. If you think that President Chirac and you are going to run Lebanon, you are mistaken. It is not going to happen. President Lahoud is me. Whatever I tell him, he follows suit. This extension is to happen or else I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblatâ€™s. (â€¦) So, you either do as you are told or we will get you and your family wherever you are.â€
Jumblat is the old, canny, Druze warlord who has survived these many years by staying one step ahead of the assassinâ€™s knife. He basically kept his mouth shut about the extension of Lahoudâ€™s term until more than a million Lebanese went into the streets to demand the ouster of Syrian troops last spring. To his credit, he then joined with Saad Hariri and several other factions in a grand coalition that swept to victory in the elections last summer.
In addition to being personally threatened by Assad, Hariri was warned by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to Washington Walid Mouallem, in a meeting just days before the assassination, who told him that Syrian security services had him â€œcorneredâ€ and not to â€œtake things lightly.â€ The former Prime Minister said after the meeting that â€œit was the worst day of his life.â€
Four Lebanese Generals (who are imprisoned on unrelated charges) have also been implicated, as well as the notorious head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine â€“ General Command, Ahmad Jibreel. The PFLP Commander has been a thorn in the side of Israel for many years and is the author of dozens of terrorist attacks directed against the Jewish state.
One curious note is that there was an intervention at the last moment by the US State Department, who asked that a portion of the report be redacted. The Daily Star report linked above says that â€œSources have stated that the uncensored report names the primary suspects in the crime as: Assef Shawkat, Syrian President Bashar Assadâ€™s brother-in-law and head of Syrian intelligence; Bahjat Suleiman, a high ranking Syrian intelligence officer; Ghazi Kenaan, the former Syrian Interior Minister and commander of Syriaâ€™s intelligence apparatus in Lebanon between 1982 and 2002.â€
One shadowy Lebanese operative appears to have been a conduit for several of the factions involved in the killing. Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Al, a prominent figure in the Al-Ahbash, Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects, and a close friend to President Lahoud, made a call minutes before the blast, at 1247 hrs, to the mobile phone of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and at 1249 hrs had contact with the mobile telephoneone of one of the Lebanese Generals implicated in the plot, Raymond Azar.
The Hariri assassination has clearly been a disaster for Assadâ€™s regime. Showing little of the guile of his father Hafez al Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly 30 years, Bashar has placed his country in an impossible position. Kicked out of Lebanon by a combination of massive protests by the Lebanese and international pressure led by the US and France, Assadâ€™s strategic position in the Middle East is in shambles.
Assadâ€™s father Hafez al Assad was a classic â€œstrongmanâ€ controlling the army and intelligence service through a combination of fear and bribes (Assad milked Lebanon commerce dry and used the proceeds to stay in power) while using an efficient and deadly secret police to stifle dissent and maintain control of the populace. His Soviet allies sold him modern weaponry while backing him diplomatically in his quest to use Lebanon as both a buffer state against Israel and a foward staging area to precipitate attacks on the Jewish homeland.
Hafez Assad was a player in the sometimes deadly game of Middle East politics because he could stay one or two steps ahead of his adversaries in Beirut as well as Washington and Tel Aviv. He was sure-handed in his dealings with other Arab states, especially his fellow Baâ€™athists in Iraq. And he was a survivor, realizing after the first Persian Gulf War that, in order to maintain his position, he would have to at least give the appearance of talking to Israel.
His son Bashar succeeded to the Presidency upon Hafezâ€™s death in 2000. Bashar, an ophthalmologist by training, came to politics late. His older brother Basil, groomed by his father to succeed him, died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar, then, was thrust into the role of putative successor. After 6 years in the military, Bashar was â€œelectedâ€ by the Syrian parliment to the presidency.
There have been reports of dissatisfaction in both the military and factions in the Baâ€™athist party itself over young Assadâ€™s rule, and this botched conspiracy may threaten his hold on power. The fact that Bashar couldnâ€™t see all this coming has apparently troubled many of the old guard Baâ€™athists who saw Lebanon as a cash cow, filling their pockets by exploiting that countryâ€™s commercial enterprises to the fullest. This begs the question: why kill Hariri in the first place?
A clue may lie in Assadâ€™s relationship with the fanatical Islamists whose guns once did his dirty work in Lebanon. They may have forced his hand regarding Hariri due to the former Prime Ministerâ€™s non-sectarian approach to the muddle that is Lebanese politics.
Rafik Hariri was a much-respected political figure. He favored giving women and young people the vote, as well as reconciling with Lebanonâ€™s Christian minority. Although a Shia Muslim by birth, he had a knack for drawing support from all segements of Lebanese society. Two events may have sealed the former Prime Ministerâ€™s fate. On January 31st, Hariri met with the Pope in Rome, an event obviously opposed by the Islamists who saw the meeting as confirmation that Hariri was cozying up to the Christian minority. Then, the very next day Hariri gave an interview to the Lebanon Daily Star in which he said he was â€œnot concerned with sectarian issuesâ€ and was friends with everyone.
This may have been the last straw for the radical Islamic terrorists who are very concerned with sectarian issues, wanting more than anything else to have Sharâ€™ia law govern the country. Assad may have felt that he had little choice, especially since Haririâ€™s opposition to an extension of President Lahoudâ€™s term would have complicated the political situation enormously. Under pressure from the international community Syria had granted Lebanon the right to have parliamentary elections in June. With Hariri a logical choice for the opposition to rally around, Assad may have forseen what occurred anyway; instead of the usual fractured sectarian muddle, a powerful, united opposition emerged and is in the process of sweeping away Lahoud and his henchmen.
A second U.N. report on Lebanon is expected next week. It will focus on the implementation of Resolution 1559, which calls for the end of Syriaâ€™s meddling in Lebanon and the disbanding of armed groups that are tied to Syria. This would include the terrorist organization Hizballah, whose militia has so far refused to disarm. This has caused problems for the United States because Hizballah may be considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, but the Lebanese people just elected two dozen of its members to parliament. There have been some proposals to incorporate the militia into the regular Lebanese army, but that has been so far rejected by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballahâ€™s senior political leader. However, Nasrallah has shown some flexibility in the matter and a compromise may still be reached.
The assassination of Rafiq Hariri was a Syrian blunder of monumental proportions. It has isolated Syria from most of the international community. It has placed Syria in a much weaker military position in the Middle East. And it has placed the rule of Bashar Assad himself in danger. On top of all that, the act of assassinating Hariri failed to achieve the desired result, and indeed had the opposite effect: it united the Lebanese opposition who, with the courage of and determination of the Lebanese people, kicked the Syrians out of Lebanon for good.
Michael Young has a fascinating explanation for why several Syrian official’s names were redacted from the published report. While The Daily Star is reporting that it was the US State Department who asked that the report be censored, Young has evidence that it was actually done at the highest level of the UN: The Office of the Secretary General:
It was especially interesting that initial copies of the Mehlis report released to journalists at the United Nations last night came as a Word document, with tracked changes in the text. The final emendations were made by the office of Secretary General Kofi Annan.
In the initial Mehlis draft of the particularly damning paragraph 96 (here is a link to a non-annotated version of the final report), two very senior Syrian officials—Military Intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, as well as the president’s own brother, Maher, are mentioned by a witness as having helped plan Rafik Hariri’s assassination. However, in the final draft redacted by Annan’s office, the names were removed, though the original text is clearly visible via the tracked changes.
This seemed to indicate timidity from Annan’s office, or at least a desire to avoid any accusation of high-level Syrians in the context of a statement by a single witness. However, that may be half the story: Why was the document released in this fashion? It would have been very easy to just make the changes and leave no editing marks. Was this a compromise between Mehlis and Annan, so that people like me could mention that detail, while the U.N. could later claim that the official version was “clean” of the names in question? Judge for yourselves.
For some reason, I trust the Daily Star on this. While UN “timidity” would be perfectly in keeping with Anan’s lack of spine, the only possible explanation I can think of for the UN redacting the information on its own would be its concern for peace in the streets of Lebanon. This kind of censorship would be logical only if Anan’s office feared a bloodbath in Beirut. It would make better sense if Anan censored the report at the behest of the State Department for the reasons I listed here.
Nevertheless, a fascinating theory in that once again, the UN proves its spinelessness. This is the consequence of trying desperately not to offend anyone; you end up covering up murderer’s names.