Analysis / The Usual Suspects

For the first time, the assassination yesterday of Rafik al-Hariri put two "usual suspects" for political murders in Lebanon in the same "indictment": Syria and Israel.

For the first time, the assassination yesterday of Rafik al-Hariri put two "usual suspects" for political murders in Lebanon in the same "indictment": Syria and Israel. Some Lebanese and Arab commentators blamed Israel, saying it wants to create instability in Lebanon as a strategic goal, perhaps in the hope that the revival of the civil war would preoccupy Hezbollah and keep it out of the territories.

But this usual conspiracy theory pales compared to the heavy accusations leveled against the Lebanese government, and the Lebanese and Syrian presidents. Even the announcement by the hitherto unknown "Al Nussera al Jihad" claiming responsibility for the bombing because of Hariri's connections to Saudi Arabia, because of Saudi combat against Islamic groups, was considered unreliable yesterday. The reason is that the assassination was perceived as being the result of Lebanese-Syrian politics, and had nothing to do with Islamic extremism.

Hariri collected plenty of political foes over the years, starting with members of parliament who regarded him as being responsible for Lebanon's enormous foreign debt. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud was also a rival because Hariri opposed him the first time Lahoud was elected president after Elias Harawi, as Hariri believed it was inappropriate for an ex-military man to head the state.

Hariri and Hezbollah clashed rhetorically and politically, especially after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Lebanon on 2000. And the billionaire had enemies among businessmen who went to court trying to collect payments they said Hariri owed them.

All those separately and together made the former prime minister move through Lebanon accompanied by a small army of private bodyguards and always in a convoy of his armored Mercedes vehicles.

But in recent months, and especially since October 2004 when he quit the government, a profound dispute emerged between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad against the background of Syrian pressure that led to the Lebanese parliament extending Lahoud's term in office for another six years.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, who usually maintained correct relations with the Syrian government, turned into one of the leaders of the opposition when he joined forces with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and with the Christian leadership to issue a call for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559, which demands a full withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.

By doing so, Hariri went onto a collision course with Syria and the Lebanese government, which dubbed him a traitor and a supporter of Israeli policy.

The upcoming general elections in Lebanon could also be the background for the assassination of the person who might have won a large majority because of the mounting anti-Syrian atmosphere in Lebanon. According to some Lebanese commentators, Syria had an interest in causing strife in Lebanon to strengthen its reasons for keeping its forces there.

The wall-to-wall condemnation of the assassination, from MPs, Hamas leaders, Hezbollah and the official condemnation from Syria did nothing to calm the fears of a violent response, political or ethnic, that could break out in Lebanon and shatter the delicate ethno-political balance of the country, which anyway is not exactly the most stable of political entities.

The question now is to what extent will the Lebanese and Syrian governments be able to remove the suspicion that they were involved in the assassination and how soon they will be able to persuade the outside world that it was the work of a foreign terrorist group. That might be why Hariri's close friend, French President Jacques Chirac, yesterday called for an international investigation, knowing that the Lebanese government lacks either the will or capability to reach the truth.

However, it is possible that a terror group such as Al Diniya or Al Nassar, which were active in Lebanon in 1999-2000 and whose activists are still in Lebanon, mostly in the north in Palestinian refugee camps, were behind the assassination. It is also possible that it was the work of a sub-group of al-Qaida, finding a new battlefront in Lebanon. Thus, the announcement by the unknown group could yet rescue Lebanon from a descent into instability.