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The picture that flashed around the world of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri embracing Syrian President Bashar Assad during his visit to Damascus last week was proof positive that a new wind was blowing through the Levant – an ill wind that smelled of a new strategic arrangement falling into place, much to the detriment of Israel and their US ally.
To imagine that image of the two leaders hugging was impossible just a year ago. Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, placed the blame for his father’s 2005 Valentines Day massacre squarely on the shoulders of Bashar Assad. In an interview following the release of the Mehlis report by UN Special Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis who was charged with investigating political violence in Lebanon, the younger Hariri related a conversation with his father who had just returned from a meeting with President Assad in Syria over the extension of President Emile LaHoud’s term in office:
Saad said: “I discussed with my father, the late Rafik Hariri, the extension of President Lahoud’s term. He told me that President Bashar Assad threatened him telling him: ‘This is what I want. If you think that President Chirac and you are going to run Lebanon, you are mistaken. It is not going to happen. President Lahoud is me. Whatever I tell him, he follows suit. This extension is to happen or else I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblat’s. So, you either do as you are told or we will get you and your family wherever you are.
Just days later, the former prime minister was killed, along with 21 others, in a massive car bomb explosion.
What does Hariri the Younger say now?
Hariri, who for years blamed Syria for his father’s death, dropped a bombshell on Monday when he told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that it was a mistake to accuse Syria in the giant truck bomb that killed ex-Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri along with 21 others near the St George Hotel on the Beirut waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005, claiming that the charge was politically motivated.
“This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has finished,” Hariri said in the interview while emphasizing that the determination of his father’s killers lies in the hands of the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, set up to probe the crime.
The Mehlis report was the first official word issued by the STL on what happened that fateful day in 2005 and it was a bombshell. Several high level Syrian government officials were implicated – including President Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who at the time was chief of the Syrian intelligence service – as well as 4 Lebanese army generals who were suspected of complicity in the attack and imprisoned for several years. They have since been released but not exonerated.
But something funny happened on the way to indicting the Syrian government for murder; the UN got cold feet. Succeeding reports moved blame for the assassination away from Syria and toward Hezbollah (virtually the same thing as blaming Syria given the terrorist group’s close ties to Damascus). Indicting a government for murder presents many problems with which the UN was loathe to deal which may be why Hezbollah, Syria’s agent in Lebanon, appears to be about to take the fall.
An indictment of prominent members of the terrorist group carries its own dangers due to Hezbollah’s position in the government of Lebanon as de facto leader of the opposition. With Hezbollah’s spiritual and military chief Hassan Nasrallah already making noises that any indictments directed against the group would precipitate a political crisis, Hariri’s disavowel of his earlier accusations may be designed to try and keep the peace in a country where tensions have been mounting for months.
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