Who Lost Lebanon?

Prime Minister Saad Hariri's surrender to Hezbollah and Syria is in full swing.

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.

But, it is actually worse than a simple political ploy as Caroline Glick points out:

Since he formed his government, Hariri has travelled three times to Damascus to kiss Assad’s ring. And in so doing, he gave up his call for justice for his father’s killers.

This became clear when last month Hariri embraced Nasrallah’s allegation that Israel murdered his father. Then last week, following his latest trip to Damascus, Hariri announced that his past claims that the Syrian regime assassinated his father were unfounded.

It gets worse:

On Monday, Yediot Aharonot reported that Iranian and Syrian intelligence agencies are applying massive pressure on Hariri to openly join the Iranian axis. Today that axis includes the Syrian regime, Hizbullah and Hamas. If and when Hariri openly joins, Lebanon will become its first non-voluntary member.

Chances are good that Hariri will succumb to their pressure. Yediot reported that the Iranians and Syrians made him an offer he can’t refuse: “If you don’t join us, you will share your father’s fate.”

A move toward Iran-Syria by Lebanon would not be entirely unexpected. Back in February, Hariri made it clear that unlike the Lebanese government’s tepid support of Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel, any future conflict with the Jewish state would see his government giving full backing to the terrorist group. Clearly, Hariri has been feeling the pressure from Hezbollah since he took office. Despite an electoral victory last year that showed the Lebanese people opposed to a Hezbollah takeover of government, there really isn’t much Hariri could have done while the terrorists are the only effective armed presence in the country.

A legitimate question can be raised whether the attempted US rapprochement with Syria has anything to do with the deteriorating position of the democrats in Lebanon. President Bush was steadfast in his support of the Lebanese government under former Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and, using King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a proxy, both the US and France buttressed the forces working for democracy in Lebanon as best they could given the circumstances. But it was extremely difficult given the tightrope the western powers had to walk in order to avoid the appearance that Siniora was a Franco-US puppet - a charge repeated early and often by Hezbollah and their allies. In the end, neither Presidents Bush or Obama could realistically be expected to forestall what appears to be the loss of Lebanon to the Iranians.

Lebanon needs Syrian goodwill to continue to explore democracy while Syria needs Lebanon as a cash cow to milk. The financial and economic ties that bind the two nations are extensive, put in place by Syria during their long occupation. A lot of those joint Syrian-Lebanese businesses benefit members of President Assad’s Syrian Baath Party, cementing their loyalty to Assad and the regime. It was unrealistic to expect Lebanon to maintain an arms-length relationship with Syria despite the dangers. A small, defenseless country, riven by factionalism and religious differences, felt it had little choice but to make the best peace it could with its powerful neighbor. Without a security guarantee from the US or France, what chance would Lebanon have of maintaining any independence at all?

So Hariri and Assad embraced, Iran appears to have the tiny country in its clutches, and Israel’s strategic situation just got worse. Lebanon has gone completely over to the dark side and any war with Hezbollah will now probably involve the Lebanese army as well. While the capabilities of the Lebanese armed forces will not strike fear into anyone, their use in war would represent a quantitative increase in Lebanon’s capability to make things difficult for Israel if any attack on Iranian nuke sites would precipitate a conflict with Hezbollah.

In the end, the answer to the question of “Who Lost Lebanon” has an easy answer; the Lebanese themselves. They were never able to overcome their differences to meet the twin challenges of Hezbollah’s guns and Syrian aggressiveness. For that, they will pay a heavy price when the next round begins between the terrorists and Israel.