The American administration indirectly joined French President Jacques Chirac's call for an international investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri when Washington called its ambassador in Damascus home for consultations.
The American step, when there is still no clue, at least publicly known, as to the identity of the assassins, directly lays the blame for the events in Lebanon at the Syrians' door, even if it is not directly responsible for the assassination.
Therefore, the U.S. and France, partners in the pressure on Syria to implement UN Security Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, have now pulled the Hariri assassination from the domestic Lebanese arena and made it an international issue.
The speedy action by Washington was meant to publicly show support for the Lebanese opposition groups, made up by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Christian leadership, which Hariri joined after resigning from the premiership last October.
On a practical level, the U.S. offered the Lebanese government its assistance in the inquiry, offering to send FBI investigators. But the goal apparently was much more far-reaching: with the assumption being that the current situation in Lebanon with regard to its relationship with Syria cannot go on, even if it turns out that Syria was not involved in the assassination, and the assassination should be used to accelerate the Syrian departure from Lebanon.
One of the first people to understand the new situation, not surprisingly, was Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who called for "unity in the ranks" in Lebanon and for the first time revealed that he held a weekly meeting with Hariri, including a meeting a week before the assassination.
At those meetings, Nasrallah said, they discussed various issues relating to the future of the country. Nasrallah demanded a thorough investigation and did not rule out consultation with foreign agencies - a hint about the FBI. Nasrallah used his revelation of meetings with Hariri to call for national reconciliation to avoid a deterioration into civil war but he was particularly worried by the calls issued by Jumblatt for an international mandate for Lebanon to replace the Syrian occupation.
The Lebanese opposition's surge in momentum in the wake of the assassination and the recognition that Syrian President Bashar Assad will find it difficult to withstand mounting international pressure, will force Nasrallah to reconsider his organization's position inside Lebanon.
One reasonable defensive measure, for both Syria and Hezbollah, will be to delegitimize the Lebanese opposition by depicting it as cozying up to the Americans. If Syria and Hezbollah succeed at diverting the debate in Lebanon to issues of loyalty to the U.S. or the "homeland" Washington's step could end up taking things in the opposite direction it intended.
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