Across the Bay

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Latest on the Hit

Under Hariri's Roof Michael Young and Lee Smith both had pieces in Slate today on the Hariri assassination that you ought to check out. Both have no doubt who was behind the hit, and it should be really obvious by now anyway. Writes Michael:

    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!"

On a related note, Rich Anderson notes, it seems that the Hariri family is not having any government officials at the funeral. This report in Naharnet confirms that Hariri's bloc in parliament furiously rejected any participation by the Lahoud regime in the funeral services on the grounds that "the killer should not be allowed to walk behind the victim's casket." Similar remarks were reported in the DS.

Lee Smith also wasn't ambiguous about the culprit:

    Even though some Arabic Web sites are suggesting that Israel is behind the murder, and a previously unknown jihadist group has claimed it killed Hariri because he supported the Saudi regime, it is almost certain that Syrian security services are culpable.

Both Michael and Lee made similar speculation on what made Hariri a target for assassination. Michael hinted again at the possibility that the means was not a car bomb, but one that placed under the road. Michael added elsewhere (Gulf 2000 list):

    [O]pposition members (citing bomb experts from the Druze militia), and a retired Lebanese army general on national television, are suggesting the bomb was placed in a sewage system under the road, which would suggest it was detonated by wire. The implications of this are quite serious, as that would imply preparation that can only really put at the door of Syrian or Lebanese intelligence. The crater was indeed a monster, apparently far bigger than a car-bomb explosion. That might
    explain why Hariri's jamming equipment didn't work.

    Once again, I would cast serious doubt on the claim that a bomb of such size (some suggested it may be a larger 500 kilograms) could have been put in place by a small and utterly unknown outfit. In fact that entire story, I venture, is a red herring. We seem to forget that the Syrian intelligence service is well equipped to protect the safety of the Lebanese when that happens to cross their mind.

This was a follow-up to a post by Nick Blanford, who is based in Beirut. Nick had written:

    The Lebanese interior minister, Suleiman Frangieh, said today that initial investigations suggest that Rafik Hariri was killed by a suicide bomber who pulled alongside Hariri's motorcade as it sped along the corniche before detonating the bomb.

    What hard evidence the Lebanese government has to support that conclusion, I don't know. But having visited the scene of the blast shortly after it occurred yesterday, it struck me that it would have been difficult to detonate the bomb by remote control. I am no expert in these matters, but to detonate a bomb remotely the perpetrator must have a clear view of the bomb and the target. The perp could not have been on the street itself or in the overlooking buildings because he would have been killed in the blast. Indeed the only building which had a commanding view of the scene is a hotel about 500 meters away. But it still would have been a dangerous undertaking - the windows of the hotel were blown out by the blast.
    Furthermore, as the hotel looks down the street (as opposed to having a sideways vantage point) it would have been difficult at that distance to exactly judge the moment Hariri's car passed the bomb.

    Hariri's motorcades were supposed to be equipped with jamming devices to block potential radio/cellphone signals used to explode bombs. I saw what could have been a jammer in the trunk of a car belonging to the motorcade.

    If it was a suicide bomber, what does that tell us about the possible culprit(s)? Does it give any greater credibility to the claim by Support and Jihad in Greater Syria (al-nusrah wa al-jihad fi bilad al-sham)?

    Anis Naccache, former associate of Carlos the Jackal who spent time in a French jail for trying to assassinate ex Iranian PM Shahpour Bakhtiar, once told me that intelligence agencies have a penchant for "manipulations," where a group carries out an operation at the bidding of a third party while unaware of the true motive for the attack.

The other question on the minds of both Lee and Michael is what reaction this will bring about from the US and the international community, as the assassination was clearly a message to that community, specifically the US and France. Michael takes a similar route as me, suggesting that Washington and Paris have several options to choose from, economic sanctions being the most obvious. Michael also mentioned that the US had pulled out its ambassador from Syria. But he also points out that the US and France must not cave in first. Lee elaborates more on the comments he has been leaving on this site, and pushes on with the more dire consequences of the failure of the US to handle this situation properly:

    Assad is gambling that for all its tough talk, the White House has neither the troops, the time, the energy, nor the domestic political credibility to back up its threats. The Syrians are probably not wrong. After all, what kind of meaningful action can the United States take? A missile strike against Damascus will add much to Syrian prestige in the region and little to that of Washington, unless the White House is willing to commit troops—and right now those troops are tied down in Iraq. In short, Assad has called Bush's bluff.

    To understand the repercussions, remember that the White House has maintained that success in Iraq would have ripple effects throughout the region. As it turned out, this is true. The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq indicated that the United States meant business, a posture that encouraged the Lebanese opposition to challenge Syria. But the ripple effect also works the other way. If opposition figures are assassinated in Beirut, this is a message that, for all its power, the United States can't always be there to protect you. Even worse is that if the Bush administration does nothing about Hariri's murder, the message will be that Washington cannot and will not protect you at all. It will be very hard to get people in the region to work with the United States if everyone believes that there is no difference between sticking your neck out and handing an executioner his weapon. It will cost Washington prestige among its allies in Iraq and show convenient "friends" like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that the White House is so vulnerable there is little price to be paid for ignoring it.

    The Iraqi elections, though a landmark moment in the Arab world, were also an anomalous blip on the screen of Middle East history. The Syrians are making a very powerful argument about their vision of the region. U.S. interests and the lives of our friends and potential allies depend on our making an equally strong case.

Indeed. Although, as Michael makes clear, the opposition has not backed down in Lebanon. Also, as I hinted in my previous posts, the Syrians have made enemies of most in the Sunni community, having just finished alienating the Druze. Ironically, just as the Syrians sent Syrian VP Khaddam to "check up" on their first target, Druze MP Marwan Hamade, right after the attempt on his life, Khaddam was sent to give condolences to the Hariris, oh and to let them know that it was Israel who did it! The Druze wanted to rip Khaddam to pieces and had to be restrained by Jumblat. They settled for cursing the hell out of him to his face. The initial reactions by the Sunnis seem to be similar, and it just might be that they will join the opposition in a much more explicit manner. But that alone won't be enough, as the international response and intervention are crucial. It's crucial for both the opposition as well as for the US plans in the region. It's also a clear test for the EU to show how it would respond to a direct snub of a UN resolution, a political assassination, and outright thuggery from a regime they were busy caressing for so long.

Again, let's wait and see.

Update: It seems that Jumblat is asking for an international force to be sent to Lebanon (I heard him say it on the news earlier this evening):

    In a statement issued at Qoreitem, Jumblatt, the leader of the Democratic Gathering, said: "The present government had declared that Hariri, (myself) and the rest of the opposition leaders were traitors and Israeli collaborators. By this logic, murdering us one by one became permissible."

    Calling the assassination "a crime against humanity," Jumblatt called for an "international force" to protect and safeguard the Lebanese people, who "do not feel safe in a Syrian or Lebanese police state."

The Defense Minister hit back with a reference to the Taef as the only regulator of Lebanese foreign policy. Ironically, before Hariri's assassination, Jumblat himself offered the Syrians a way to save face by going through the Taef instead of 1559, and we know how far that went. So Jumblat by asking for international intervention has clearly gone back to the international framework. Although, he did mention (Arabic) that he wouldn't mind having Arab troops come in to replace the Syrian troops. I am not sure if he meant that they would be UN Arab troops. I am not too thrilled about troops under the auspices of the Arab League. It was that same scenario that cemented the Syrians grip on Lebanon in the first place, and Jumblat knows it. But that's why he wants them to replace the Syrian troops, who will need to completely pull out.

I've thrown around the possibility of international troops, and I hope Jumblat's request falls on receptive ears at the security council. The Arabs, Syria and the Lebanese government will fight it tooth and nail of course. The Saudis have even rejected calls for an international investigation. These troops should also help secure an election free from Syrian intervention.

Update 2: The Russians have agreed to go ahead with the controversial sale of missiles to Syria.

Besides having something to threaten Israel with, I wonder if one can say that the Syrians are (and were) anticipating the possibility of a strike. If so, then an interesting, even if purely conjectural question would be if that meant that they were planning Hariri's assassination from way back when Bashar went to Moscow, if not before. Of course this is all wild speculation for which I have absolutely no support!

Update 3: An-Nahar has a little more (Arabic) on the issue of the explosives used in Hariri's assassination. This was first brought to my attention through Michael's comments above. The An-Nahar report adds that according to MP Marwan Hamade, there is evidence that not only was the bomb planted in underground tunnel or sewage pipe, but that the explosives were placed in a spot where there was some road work for state purposes, and that the road where this was taking place was cut off a few days earlier.

Update 4: In a statement on the internet, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda (Tanzim al-Qa'ida fi bilad ash-Sham) has denied (Arabic) any role in the assassination of Hariri. Interestingly it didn't just point the finger at Israel, which is what you would expect. It also included the Syrian and Lebanese security services as the other two possibilities besides the Israelis!