February 10, 2015


The Hezbollah Connection (RONEN BERGMAN, FEB. 10, 2015, NY Times Magazine)

To understand the assassination of Rafik Hariri, you must begin decades earlier, in 1975, when a civil war originally between Maronite Christians and Palestinians threatened to tear Lebanon apart. The government asked neighboring Syria to send troops, and the Syrians, who have always seen Lebanon as part of greater Syria, were happy to oblige. The troops stayed, and soon Hafez al-Assad, the president of Syria, was installing his own puppet politicians in positions of power.

The struggle eventually swept up Christians, Druse, Palestinian refugees, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims -- a five-way war of constantly shifting allegiances -- and left at least 120,000 people dead, with hundreds of thousands more wounded or homeless. More than a million Lebanese fled the country, even as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and especially Syria made it hostage to their own regional agendas. As the war progressed, the Syrians switched their own allegiances however they saw fit, as long as they could continue running the country. Syrian businessmen took advantage of Lebanon's more advanced financial infrastructure, entering under protection of their armed forces, and the Syrian Army became involved in the growing Lebanese drug trade.

In 1982, Israel began an invasion across its northern border, seeking to root out elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israeli military wreaked destruction all the way up to Beirut and forced the P.L.O. out of Lebanon. It also defeated the Syrian Army and particularly the Air Force wherever it engaged them. Realizing he couldn't win a conventional war against the Israelis, Assad, an Alawite Muslim, took a different and somewhat surprising tack: He withdrew his opposition to a plan, proposed by clerics loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, to establish a Shiite political party in Lebanon. The new organization was supposed to provide Lebanon's Shiite minority with an alternative to the Christian-Sunni governments that had discriminated against them, and also provide Lebanon with a well-funded educational, religious, social and (especially) military organization. The organization, which was a resounding success, called itself the Party of God -- in Arabic, Hezbollah. Assad hoped that the Shiite guerrilla force would maul the Israeli Army, which still occupied a "security zone" in southern Lebanon. It did, and Israel's response was to assassinate the secretary general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Abbas Musawi, in February 1992.

Musawi was succeeded by a capable young cleric, Hassan Nasrallah, and Nasrallah in turn appointed Imad Mughniyeh to run Hezbollah's military wing. Mughniyeh was a kind of genius of terrorism. He made suicide bombing a strategic weapon, and he was a master of guerrilla tactics, blitz attacks and radio-controlled explosive devices. He also had a gift for propaganda: It was Hezbollah that first started recording its own attacks and broadcasting the results. Mughniyeh is widely believed to be the architect of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing that killed 241 American servicemen, 58 French servicemen and six civilians and led to the withdrawal of the United States Marines in 1984. In 2000, with just a small militia under his command, he succeeded in forcing the Israeli Army, the strongest military force in the Middle East, to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

Assad died that same year, and his son, Bashar al-Assad, took over as president of Syria. He noted well how the partnership of Nasrallah and Mughniyeh had succeeded where the entire Arab world, including his own father, had failed, and he made Syria's link with Hezbollah -- and its patrons in Tehran -- the central component of his security doctrine. (Assad's wager on Hezbollah paid off in 2013, when Nasrallah sent forces­ that bolstered the Syrian government against its own rebels.)

But inside Lebanon, Israel's withdrawal in 2000 began to raise hopes that Syria, too, might soon depart. To the consternation of Hezbollah leaders and many Syria-backed politicians, an anti-Syria coalition began to form, drawing together Christian, Druse and Sunni Muslim figures. The most prominent politician in this group was Rafik Hariri.

Hariri was born to a poor Sunni family in southern Lebanon in 1944 and quickly rose to great wealth. After securing a degree in business administration from Arab University in Beirut in 1965, he moved to Saudi Arabia, where he demonstrated a virtuoso talent for completing huge projects -- mosques, palaces, shopping malls -- efficiently and on time. He became a favorite of the royal family and in the early 1980s moved back to Lebanon a well-­connected billionaire. In 1992, he ran for prime minister and won, on a platform of liberalizing the Lebanese economy; after serving until 1998, he ran again two years later and took office from 2000 to 2004.

As prime minister, Hariri did not directly confront Hezbollah or the Syrians, but conflict simmered nonetheless. The Syrian Army continued to occupy Lebanon from the north, and Hezbollah's battles with Israel to the south did little to help most of the Lebanese people. Hariri's wealth and popularity -- not to mention his influence as the owner of a growing portfolio of Lebanese and French newspapers and television and radio stations -- gave him a reputation far beyond Lebanon. He wanted to make Beirut the financial capital of the Middle East, as it had once been, and Lebanon a liberal, Western-­oriented country. Assad sought to maintain the status quo, with Syria in control of Lebanon and Hezbollah its most powerful military force.

In the end, Assad prevailed -- if not on the larger question of Syria's presence in Lebanon, then at least on whether it would be him or Hariri who would determine the outcome. The struggle for control found its object in a dispute about the fate of Emile Lahoud, the president of Lebanon since 1998, who was about to end his final term in office. The role of the president was largely ceremonial, but Lahoud, a Christian, had long backed Syrian involvement in Lebanon, and Assad decided it was important to keep him in place, a move that would require amending Lebanon's constitution. Hariri was firmly opposed to the amendment, and the Syrians were also convinced that he and Walid Jumblatt, a Druse opposition leader, were acting behind the scenes to help the United Nations Security Council pass Resolution 1559, calling upon Hezbollah to disarm and Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

On Aug. 26, 2004, Assad summoned Hariri to his presidential palace in Damascus to deliver an ultimatum. Lahoud must remain in office, Assad said, even if the United States and France didn't like it. Hariri objected, but Assad cut him short. "It will be Lahoud," he said. If Hariri or Jumblatt tried to stop him, another person present at the meeting told the tribunal, he would break Lebanon over their heads. Then he repeated the threat. "I will break Lebanon over your head and over Walid Jumblatt's head," he said. "So you had better return to Beirut and arrange the matter on that basis." (Assad has since denied threatening Hariri's safety in any way.)

Hariri returned to Beirut -- one of his bodyguards would later tell the United Nations investigators that the prime minister was so shocked by the encounter that his nose began to bleed -- and drove immediately to Jumblatt's home. Assad's father had almost certainly ordered the death of Jumblatt's father, the Lebanese opposition leader Kamal Jumblatt, in 1977, and he was also most likely behind the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, in 1982. Hariri and Jumblatt had little reason to doubt that Assad would do the same to them. The risk only increased on Sept. 2, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1559; the Syrians suspected, not without justification, that Hariri was involved.

Hariri was losing the parliamentary vote on the Lahoud amendment in any case, and several Syria-backed ministers threatened to resign, taking the government down with them, unless Hariri himself stepped down. In early September, shortly before a ceremony in which he received a prize from the United Nations for rebuilding Lebanon, Hariri announced his resignation. He left office on Oct. 20, 2004, and immediately turned his attention to the regional elections scheduled to take place in six months. A new government, his advisers told him, would almost certainly put him back in the prime minister's office.

Posted by at February 10, 2015 6:16 PM

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