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Last Updated: Friday, 18 February, 2005, 13:19 GMT
Syria stung by Hariri death fall-out
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC World Service Arab affairs analyst

Only hours after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, politicians began speaking of "the martyr Rafik Hariri", a term reserved for those who die in a war fighting the enemy.

The description underlines a widely held belief that Mr Hariri was killed by the external enemies of Lebanon and not because of any other internal Lebanese power struggle.

Rafik Hariri seen moments before the blast
Rafik Hariri had called for Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon

The question is who are Lebanon's enemies?

Those opposed to Syria's pervasive influence over Lebanon's political life are in no doubt that the devastating explosion that killed Mr Hariri and his bodyguards on Monday was the work of Syria.

Mr Hariri's funeral on Wednesday rapidly turned, at least in part, into a demonstration of Lebanese nationalism protesting against Syria's military presence in Lebanon.

Relations between Mr Hariri and Damascus hit rock bottom last year as the end of President Emile Lahoud's term in office approached its end.

Mr Hariri was opposed to an extension for Mr Lahoud, with whom he had been locked in a power struggle.

After the former prime minister publicly declared his opposition, pressure from Damascus forced him to make a U-turn.

Should Syria be eventually forced to withdraw from Lebanon, many will be wondering what will become of Hezbollah
While Mr Lahoud is a staunch ally of Syria, Mr Hariri was never an enemy, nor was he an outright supporter of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

Mr Hariri, who entered politics after having made his fortune in business, was not an ideological politician, but a pragmatist and he seems to have managed his relationship with Damascus, like much else in Lebanese politics, by walking a tight-rope.

Toeing the line

He may have had his disagreements with Damascus over domestic matters, but as long as he toed the line on what Syria regarded as strategic issues, he was not seen as a threat.

During his various terms in office throughout the 1990s and up until his resignation last year, he demonstrated considerable awareness of Syria's geopolitical fears.

On foreign policy, whether it was to do with opposition to the Iraq war or the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr Hariri, publicly at least, never deviated from the Syrian script or crossed any of the red lines laid down by Damascus.

He never questioned the "special relationship between the two brotherly nations" with emphasis on Israel as the main "threat to peace and stability in the region".

But the political order in the Middle East has seen an upheaval since the 11 September 2001 attacks, the war in Iraq and Washington's declared policy of spreading democracy in the region.

Hezbollah members in Lebanon
Support for Hezbollah is one of Syria's main crimes, in US eyes
As the White House piled the pressure on rulers to introduce reforms, and then secured a UN resolution calling on Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon, it became apparent that Syria was becoming increasingly vulnerable and isolated.

The opposition to Syrian military presence in Lebanon felt encouraged by the UN resolution and grew louder by the day.

Although Mr Hariri himself is not known to have publicly endorsed the opposition, it is widely believed that he did so tacitly.

He must have become increasingly aware that Syria's presence in Lebanon had become untenable.

For the Syrians, he had apparently crossed that red line.

This kind of analysis is the only "evidence" so far put forward by those who believe that Damascus played a hand in his assassination.

The assassination of Mr Hariri has sparked a wave of fear and anxiety not only in Lebanon, but across the region.

Hezbollah's next move?

Commentators and politicians have warned against the risk of a new cycle of violence engulfing Lebanon and its neighbours.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal Bin Abdel-Aziz, said unless the perpetrators were brought to justice, there would be unforeseen consequences for the entire region.

Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus, and the US envoy to the Middle East, William Burns, has called for an immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Damascus has weathered many political storms in the past, but it is difficult to see how the Baath regime can survive this one unscathed.

One of the main reasons for Washington's hardening attitude towards Damascus is its support for the militant Lebanese group, Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel, is a formidable political and military organisation that has broad support among Lebanon's Shia population.

Should Syria be eventually forced to withdraw from Lebanon, many will be wondering what will become of Hezbollah.

Will it withdraw its guerrillas from the border with Israel and dismantle its militias without putting up a fight?

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