Assassination in Lebanon Opens Possibilities for Israel and Its Foes

Political assassinations often turn out to be seminal events, but they don’t always work out the way the assassins wanted them to. The Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is widely believed to have been engineered by Syrian intelligence. It may well have triggered a chain reaction that will lead to the expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon, with serious repercussions for Israel and the Middle East as a whole.

Indeed, if Syria’s influence in Lebanon wanes, one of the beneficiaries could be Israel. But then again the big winner could be Iran — at Israel’s cost.

A good scenario for Israel would be if the Lebanese opposition, galvanized into action by the assassination, forces the Syrians to leave, and with backing from the United States and Europe fashions a new Western-oriented Lebanon, open to ties with Israel.

A chastened Syria, its weaknesses exposed, may feel its best hope lies in joining in.

But there are other scenarios, not as positive for Israel, that are possible as well.

For example, the Lebanese opposition could be cruelly repressed by Syria, which could end up even an even stronger force in the country.

Israeli analysts tend to rule out this scenario, arguing that the United States would not allow it to happen. More likely, they say, is that Syria would either end or drastically reduce its presence in Lebanon and Shi’ite Iran would move into the vacuum, fomenting internal instability to cement its position and upgrading its power base among Lebanese Shi’ites to harass Israel.

At issue is not only Lebanon’s liberty, but the international orientation of both Lebanon and Syria: Will they emerge closer to Iran or the West?

The general consensus in the Arab world is that Hariri was assassinated because of his outspoken opposition to Syria’s continued domination of Lebanese affairs.

Ever since 1976, Syria has controlled Lebanon. Over the past few years, though, Lebanese calls for an end to Syrian domination have been growing louder.

The outspoken Hariri was the driving force behind U.N. Resolution 1559, calling on the Syrians to remove the 15,000 soldiers they have deployed on Lebanese soil. According to Arab news reports, the Syrians feared Hariri would be re-elected prime minister in general elections scheduled for May, spearhead a move to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon and then conclude a separate peace with Israel.

To prevent this, Arab media reports say, Syrian security forces assassinated him.

The Israeli intelligence reading is similar. Military intelligence agrees the Syrians were behind the murder, but argues that Syrian President Bashar Assad probably didn’t know about it. If he had, the Israeli version goes, he would have prevented it because of its potential to harm Syria.

The assassination sparked a Lebanese grass-roots opposition movement against the continued Syrian presence. Lebanese opposition forces are demanding that Syria remove all its soldiers, agents and 1 million workers from Lebanon. Opposition leaders say they are counting on an “avalanche effect” and have called for a relentless intifada, or uprising, until the Syrians leave.

Such activity and terminology would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, and by now Syrian guns probably would have gotten rid of any signs of dissidence. But over the past five years there have been two major changes in the region.

Syrian President Hafez Assad, who was a strong leader, died. His son Bashar has nothing like his father’s presence or clout. Even more to the point, the United States now has 150,000 troops in Iraq, right on Syria’s doorstep. A weak and insecure Syrian regime will think twice before embarking on any action that could spark retaliatory U.S. moves.

Israeli analysts say the United States could cooperate with France and the European Union to curb Syrian influence. French President Jacques Chirac, a personal friend of Hariri’s, has taken a strong stand in favor of Syrian withdrawal and for a free Lebanon.

Some Israeli analysts think the removal of Syrian influence might be problematic not only for Syria but for Israel too.

Writing in the mass circulation daily Ma’ariv, Jackie Hougie maintains that “expelling the Syrians from Lebanon could release volatile genies.” Without Syria’s firm hand, he writes, there could be a breakdown of law and order and a resurgence of the old Lebanon, with Christians fighting Muslims, and even Shi’ites fighting fellow Shi’ites, tearing the country apart and making Israeli overtures impossible.

But most analysts argue that a new civil war in Lebanon is unlikely because all the sectarian players — Christians, Muslims, and Druse– know the cost. On Israel Radio, Guy Bechor of Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center insisted that a stronger Lebanon, free of Syria, could become united enough to make a lasting peace with Israel.

But that leaves open the question of Iranian influence.

If Syria were not a force, Iran would do all it could to undermine the chance of peace between Lebanon and Israel. Iran already has Revolutionary Guards stationed in southern Lebanon, and they control the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia.

For some time, Iran has been promoting terror in the West Bank and Gaza through Hezbollah agents who have infiltrated into the Palestinian areas. Any talk of peace with Israel almost certainly would encounter strong and possibly violent Iranian resistance.

The Lebanese crisis at first led to a tightening of the Damascus-Tehran axis. Two days after the assassination, Assad sent his prime minister, Naji Al-Otari, to Tehran, in what Israeli intelligence says was an attempt to deter a U.S. attack on Damascus by playing up his close ties with Iran.

But the United States is unlikely to be deterred so easily.

In his second term, President Bush seems to be targeting Damascus. He lost no time in withdrawing the U.S. ambassador in the wake of the Hariri assassination. And before that, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sternly warned Damascus to stop its support of terror in Iraq and against Israel.

In Washington, the talk is of Syria as “low-hanging fruit” in comparison to its fellow “rogue state,” Iran, indicating that the United States might consider aiming at the easier target first.

Looking at the region as a whole, Israeli analysts speak about an “Arab power vacuum in the East,” with Syria impotent and an American-occupied Iraq. Therefore, they say, the field is open for non-Arab penetration by Iran or Israel.

For Israel, the changes in Lebanon could lead to efforts to achieve a peace deal, despite Syrian and Iranian resistance. The result — as is so often the case — could depend on America.

The United States may be able to neutralize Syria. The big question is whether it will have the resolve to stop Iran from spoiling the party.

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