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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

February 21, 2005

The 300 kg car bomb that killed former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri in Beirut last week is being widely blamed on Syria. The Bush Administration, cheered on by Israel, accused Syria of `terrorism,’ withdrew its ambassador, and all but threatened Damascus with war.

A Syrian role in the crime defies logic, though not possibility. President Bashar- el-Asad’s besieged regime is desperately seeking to avoid providing the hostile Bush Administration with a pretext for war, and has urgently sought improved relations with both the US and Israel. The Washington-Jerusalem axis has rejected all such Syrian demarches.

Hariri dealt comfortably with Syria for years. Though reportedly privately against the continued presence of 15,000 Syrian `peacekeeping’ troops in Lebanon, Hariri was not a major threat to Damascus and kept mum about their troops presence. In fact, this consummate but pragmatic Levantine politician played all sides and had enjoyed close political and business links to Syria.

Suspicion points at Lebanon’s far rightist, anti-Syrian Maronites; Israel’s Mossad; or Syrian or Lebanese Islamists. All had interest in destabilizing Lebanon and hurting Syria. Other suspects: rogue elements from one of Syria’s many competing security agencies; and business rivals of billionaire Hariri, who was a brilliant but ruthless entrepreneur.

The professional expertise of the bombing strongly suggests a state intelligence agency. Hariri’s murder is only the latest in at least a dozen unsolved political assassinations in Lebanon over the past two decades. The most recent was former Maronite warlord Elie Hobeika, who supervised the 1982 massacres of 2,000 Palestinian civilians at the Shatilla and Sabra camps. Soon after Hobeika had announced he was going to go public with proof of then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s direct involvement in that atrocity, he was blown apart by a car bomb in Beirut.

The Hariri bombing occurred as the White House is intensifying efforts to overthrow Syria’s government. The US, France and the UN Security Council are demanding Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon. Syrian forces had been invited in by Lebanon’s Maronite Christians and the Arab League to end Lebanon’s bloody, 15-year civil war.

They remained and made sure pro-Syrian politicians ran Lebanon. In spite of a recent, US-French engineered UN Security Council demand to withdraw from Lebanon, Damascus refuses to pull out until Israel withdraws its troops occupying the Golan Heights and West Bank in violation of UN resolutions.

Syria has never entirely accepted Lebanese independence. French colonialists created Lebanon out of historical Syria to create a Maronite Christian-dominated enclave. Imperial Britain similarly carved out Kuwait from historical Iraq to secure its oil.

Washington has totally adopted Israel’s view that Syria is a dangerous threat and supporter of terrorists - meaning Palestinian resistance groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Lebanon’s welfare and resistance organization Hizbullah.

Israel is determined to get revenge on Hizbullah, which defeated its attempts to turn Lebanon into an Israeli protectorate and drove Israeli occupation forces from Lebanon – a small but vicious war this writer saw first hand.

PM Sharon’s rightist Likud Party may be renewing previous efforts to bring Lebanon back into Israel’s sphere of influence. For the past quarter century, Syria and Israel have a waged a dirty war of bombings and assassinations to dominate Lebanon and Jordan.

The White House, following Likud’s advice, is hoping its threats and economic siege of Syria will provoke the overthrow of the Asad regime. This strategy might actually work.

Like Iraq, Syria is a fragile ethnic/religious mosaic held together by an iron-fisted central government.

Bashar al-Asad inherited his regime in 2000 from father, Hafiz, a wily, ruthless general who had ruled Syria since 1970. The younger Asad is trying to modernize, liberalize, and reform Syria, but faces heavy resistance from the Ba’ath party’s old guard which fears too much change, a la Gorbachev, will produce revolution.

The Asads belonged to a secretive religious sect, the Alawi, considered heretics by Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims. Alawi make up only 10% of Syria’s 17 million people. But their dominance of the armed forces and intelligence services allowed Asad senior to rule Syria for three decades. A similar process occurred in Iraq, where minority Sunnis held power by controlling the army and security forces.

Asad senior crushed numerous attempts by the Sunni majority and Islamists to overthrow his regime. This writer visited the city of Hama just after the Asad regime killed 10,000 rebelling members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Syrians would like to be rid of the Asad regime and US-imposed economic sanctions, but fear sudden change will produce chaos or civil war.

Israel would welcome Syria’s implosion, as it did Iraq’s. Hence current Israeli efforts to press the White House and Congress to overthrow Syria’s unloved, isolated regime, whose only ally is Iran, itself a leading target on America’s Mideast hit list.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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