Thursday, October 20, 2005
Mehlis report: Syrian military intelligence killed Rafik Hariri
"Lebanon is easy to eat, but almost impossible to digest"
Bashir Gemayel, ABC News interview, 27 June 1982.
As the United States, Israel and other countries that have intervened in
Lebanon over the centuries have painfully learned, meddling in Lebanese
affairs rarely pays off. Adding to the cumbersome perils faced by Bashar
Al-Assad, the Detlev Mehlis Report released on 20 October 2005 openly
implicates Syrian officials and their Lebanese proxies in the assassination
of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005. The report
represents the latest milestone in a series of groundbreaking events that
have occurred since the Syrian-dictated extension of Lebanese President
Emile Lahoud's mandate in September 2004.
The intensity of international pressure on the al-Assad regime has led many
to speculate that the 35-year-old Baathist dynasty may be in its twilight
stages. The bizarre death of Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, a key figure in
the Syria's old guard, does nothing to quell speculations that the
Alawite-dominated regime may be on the verge of calamity.
Since the advent of his reign upon the death of his father, Bashar Al-Assad,
a London-trained ophthalmologist, was widely perceived as incapable of
leading Syria, especially at a time when the regional and international
dynamics have been altered by a sequence of ground-breaking events such as
the September 11 attacks, the Palestinian Intifada, and the invasion of
Iraq. Syrian influence in Lebanon, which has long been the pride of the
regime in Damascus, may yet prove to be the fatal disease which slowly but
surely devoured the Al-Assad regime and eroded Syria's vital role in
In understanding and assessing Syrian policy in Lebanon, it is important to
examine the historical relationship shared between the two countries. The
proximity of the two states clearly suggests strong social and geographic
ties. Under the Ottoman Empire, Mount Lebanon was incorporated into the
province of Syria, which was governed by a designated administrator. After
World War I, the French and British divided the region under the Sykes-Picot
Agreement. Many Syrians, as well as some Lebanese, share the view that
Lebanon is a lost province, separated from 'sisterly' Syria by the intrusion
of Western imperialism. The Baath Party's adherence to the belief that
Lebanon is a lost province is manifested in the fact that Lebanon and Syria,
to this day, share no diplomatic ties and respective embassies in Beirut and
Indeed, many official Syrian maps fail to highlight the international
boundary between the two countries. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora's
recent call for a demarcation of the international border and embassies in
both countries is indeed a turning point in the history of bilateral
relations between the two countries. Seniora's move towards defining the
borders clearly struck a nerve with Syria, and resulted in an innocent
bystander civilian surveyor being shot last week while performing the
Further, many Syrian officials have openly emphasized their expansionary
ambitions. On the 7th January 1976, shortly before the Syrian Army entered
Lebanon, former Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam declared that
"Lebanon was a part of Syria and we would restore it with any attempt at
The death of Ghazi Kanaan represents the demise of a symbol of Syrian
primacy in Lebanon. Kanaan was effectively the 'viceroy' of Lebanon from
1982 to 2002, presiding over a period which saw Syria confront regional and
international superpowers such as Israel and the United States in the quest
for a stake in Lebanese affairs.
Syria's role in Lebanon provided it with indispensable regional clout,
further validating Henry Kissinger's statement of the early 1970's, "In the
Middle East ... you can't make peace without Syria." The al-Assad regime
used Lebanon, among other things, to pressure Israel, ensure the stability
of its reign by creating economic opportunities for its population, and
allowed it to negotiate from a position of strength with international
powers. However, Syria's increased influence is Lebanon gradually became
intolerable, culminating in the revolutionary events of 2005.
Syria entered Lebanon under the aegis of an Arab League mandate in 1976
ostensibly to put an end to the hostilities that were taking place between
the mainly-Christian 'Lebanese Front' and the 'Lebanese National Movement',
an alliance of Lebanese leftists, Muslims, and Palestinians. In 1978, the
'Lebanese Front' began accusing Syria of establishing the groundwork for a
prolonged occupation of Lebanon and furthering its own interests at the
expense of Lebanese peace and stability.
For the many years that followed, Syria played an active role in the
Lebanese Civil War, attracting antagonism from a diverse number of groups.
In October 1990, in order to facilitate the 'ostensible' implementation of
the 1989 Taif Accord, Syria forcefully removed the renegade government of
General Michel Aoun.
Syria's continued presence in Lebanon was facilitated by the presence of up
to 40,000 of its troops in the country its tight grip over the Lebanese
government. This was achieved via the manipulation of the Lebanese electoral
system as a means of ensuring that a satellite regime loyal to Damascus was
constantly in place.
Despite international endorsement and recognition, the successive Lebanese
governments of 1990-2005 bore the characteristics of the Eastern Bloc
satellite states during the Cold War; where all affairs were effectively
controlled by an outside power. Lebanon began to resemble a police state as
the security apparatuses of the government began to bluntly interfere in
political and social affairs with impunity. For instance, when Lebanese
Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea openly chastised the Syrian-backed regime in
the early 1990s, he was imprisoned and his movement was banned. The
influence of the security apparatuses increased dramatically after President
Emile Lahoud took power in 1998.
All consecutive elections that took place in 1992, 1996 and 2000 were
subject to Syrian orchestration. The parliamentary election of 2000, the
first to take place under the Presidency of Bashar Al-Assad, offered little
exception. The US State Department 2001 Human Rights Report on Lebanon
stated that "The rights of citizens to change their government remains
significantly restricted by the lack of government control over parts of the
country, shortcomings in the electoral system, and Syrian influence."
In order to facilitate the ascension of pro-Syrian candidates, many
electoral districts such as Bsharri, Akkar and Koura were gerrymandered by
Ghazi Kanaan against the wishes of their local populations. Candidates were
pressured to run on certain electoral lists that were subservient to
Damascus. In 1994, without any particular justification, approximately
200,000 Syrians were nationalized as Lebanese citizens.
One of the more controversial means of manipulation instituted by Syrian
intelligence was the assembling of such 'naturalized' Lebanese to vote in
their adopted electorates, which are usually dominated by pro-Syrian
candidates. One official from the Lebanese Association for Democratic
Elections expressed his outrage by stating that "It's not at all a free and
fair election by any stretch of imagination". Syria openly perverted the
Lebanese democratic process in the interest of forming a loyal government
and subduing any opposition to Syrian influence.
Syrian hegemony over Lebanon spread far beyond political and military terms.
Syria used its position as the power broker in Lebanon to benefit
economically at the expense of the Lebanese economy. The Syrian occupation
led to a rapid deterioration of the country's economy due to the enormous
influx of unskilled Syrian workers. The 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood and
Cooperation between Syria and the regime of President Hrawi effectively
removed many pre-existing travel restrictions between the two countries and
the regime of President Lahoud continued this trend.
The result was reflected in the 1.4 million Syrian workers present in
Lebanon. This was obviously not in Lebanon's interest, a country with a
population 3.8 million and an unemployment rate of around 40%. In addition
to this, the Syrian workers were not subject to taxation or work permits. In
2000, out of the 1.4 million Syrian workers in Lebanon, only 530 were issued
with work permits by the Lebanese government.
The colossal presence of Syrian workers, which was facilitated by the Syrian
control over Lebanese affairs, is a factor in the acute economic depression
that Lebanon has been facing since 1998. Also, surplus Syrian products were
constantly 'dumped' on Lebanese markets, heavily damaging the agricultural
sector. The situation has sparked many demonstrations by farmers, who
deplored the competition with Syrian products that was destroying their
livelihoods. Syrian-backed politicians readily embezzled public funds and
corruption became a norm. The deteriorating economic situation was resulting
in increased civil unrest and at one stage threatened to undermine stability
in Lebanon. The silent majority was becoming increasingly frustrated with
Without a doubt, the most perceptible representation of deliberate
exploitation of Lebanon by Syria was the effort to prolong the instability
in South Lebanon. Syria essentially used Lebanon as a proxy battleground in
its hidden war with Israel. During Israel's 'Operation Grapes of Wrath'
campaign against Lebanon in 1996, the Syrian Army did not respond militarily
even when one of its positions in Beirut came under fire, killing one Syrian
soldier. They never needed to lift a finger since Syria's support and
influence over Hezbollah served as an indispensable bargaining chip in peace
negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. Consequently, Syria
suffered what appeared to be a considerable setback upon the Israeli
withdrawal, which occurred shortly before Bashar Al-Assad came to power in
The Syrian response to this mishap was encouraging Hezbollah to reject the
Syrian withdrawal on the grounds that its was incomplete and demand Israeli
withdrawal from the small patch of land on the southern border known as the
Shebaa Farms. The invalidity of such a claim lies in the fact that the area
known as the Shebaa Farms is part of the territory that was originally
captured from Syria during Six-Day War in 1967. As a result, the United
Nations rendered Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon as complete in compliance
with UN Resolution 425.
The oblivious callousness of the Syrian-backed regime became shockingly
apparent in August 2001, when hundreds of pro-independence activists were
rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, or beaten on the streets by intelligence
agents of the regime.
Detlev Mehlis says that he too has the following information , upon which no
serious investigation has been initiated thus far by the Lebanese
On January 24, 2002, Hobeika's car was blown up by a remote controlled bomb
placed in a parked Mercedes along a street in the Hazmieh section
of Beirut. The bomb exploded when Hobeika and his three associates, Fares
Souweidan, Mitri Ajram, and Waleed Zein, were driving their Range
Rover past the TNT-laden Mercedes at 9:22 am Beirut time. The Range Rover's
four passengers were killed in the explosion. In case Hobeika's
car had taken another route through the neighborhood, two additional parked
cars, located at two other choke points, were also rigged with
TNT. The powerful bomb wounded a number of other people on the street. Other
parked cars were destroyed and buildings and homes were damaged.
The Lebanese president, prime minister, and interior minister all claimed
that Israeli agents were behind the attack...., a false, fake claim to say
The Syrian hit team was ordered by Assef Shawkat, the number two man in
Syrian military intelligence and a good friend and brother in law of
Syrian President Bashar Assad. The order to take out Hobeika was
transmitted by Shawkat to Roustom Ghazali, the head of Syrian military
intelligence in Beirut. Ghazali arranged the Hit with local Thugs from well
known in-country Terrorist organizations..... and positioned the three
remote controlled cars to be parked along Hobeika's route in Hazmieh; only
few hundred yards from the Barracks of Syrian Special Forces which
are stationed in the area near the Presidential palace , the ministry of
Defense and various Government and officers quarters .
The murder of Lebanese Forces (LF) activist Ramzi Irani in 2002 was seen by
many as a sign that the Syrian-backed regime was becoming increasingly
alarmed by the dissenting voices in Lebanon. The occupation of Lebanon was
becoming an increasingly difficult enterprise to sustain. The storm was
The extension of Lahoud's mandate in September 2004 was the proverbial
"straw the broke the camel's back". The backing of the international
community in the form of UN resolution 1559 emboldened the growing
anti-Syrian movement to openly condemn the regime. The attempted
assassination of anti-Syrian politician Marwan Hamadeh in October 2004 did
little to quell the growing dissent. The February 14 assassination of former
PM Rafik Hariri, who had seemingly joined the anti-Syrian movement after the
Lahoud extension, came at a time when Syria was struggling to maintain its
authority in Lebanon in the face of increasing cross-sectarian opposition.
The response by the Lebanese people and the international community was
Today, in the wake of the Mehlis Report, the Syrian regime is effectively
under siege by the international community. As an Alawite ruler in a
predominantly Sunni Muslim country, Bashar Al-Assad's failures are not taken
lightly by his Syrian subjects. There are unsubstantiated reports that Ghazi
Kanaan was opposed to the alleged decision to eliminate Hariri. If true,
this raises further questions about Kanaan's convenient 'suicide'.
Being an Alawite member of the old guard, Ghazi Kanaan, a trusted aide of
the late Hafez Al-Assad, was well-placed to challenge the leadership of
Bashar. Other prominent members of the old guard such as Abdel-Halim Khaddam
appear to have distanced themselves from the embattled regime. Further, the
cooperation of a high-ranking Syrian military official in the Mehlis probe
is not an encouraging sign for Al-Assad.
Syria's contemporary agony is a manifestation of years of political,
military and economic exploitation of Lebanon. Its excesses in Lebanon went
unanswered for years, until they became overreaching.
The United States was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 1983
after a devastating suicide attack left 241 US marines dead. Israel
unilaterally withdrew its troops from South Lebanon after a 22-year presence
which left over 1,000 of its troops dead and resulted in unprecedented
international indignation. Both countries paid a high price for their
involvement in Lebanon. But in the wake of such international and possibly
domestic pressure, will the Al-Assad regime pay the highest price of all for
its involvement in Lebanon?