The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, has not begun a new crisis in the Middle East. Rather, Mr. Hariri’s murder, probably at Syrian instigation, is the culmination of tensions between the United States and Syria that began in April 2003 as U.S. troops were sweeping into Baghdad. If we understand the bloody removal of a politician who dared to snub Damascus as the ultimate act of defiance of an outlaw regime, then we can chart a successful path through the coming weeks and months.
For nearly two years the United States has used standard diplomatic tools to engage Damascus, to attempt, to persuade and to pressure. Problems began when it emerged that the final conventional battles to save the Iraqi regime in April 2003 were to a significant extent fought by Syrian “volunteers,” not by Iraqis. The Syrian Ba’ath Party, which had once been the mortal rival of the Iraqi Ba’athists, then provided haven for the fleeing remnants of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Secure in Syria, these Iraqi Ba’athists were able to regroup, organize and counter attack across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The United States struggled to find a cohesive policy toward Syria, preferring to resort to standard operating procedures. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Damascus in May 2003 and received the usual empty promises from the Ba’athist regime. Congress slapped economic sanctions on Syria through the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of December 2003, a largely symbolic gesture given the low level of U.S.-Syrian trade. Finally, the United States and France jointly sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, unanimously adopted on Sept. 2, which demanded that Syrian forces leave Lebanon. As usual, declarations were preferred to actions.
Clearly, Syria paid no heed to these approaches. That is why the murder of Mr. Hariri is not simply a warning to those Lebanese who refuse to obey Syria, but a rebuff to United States and international diplomacy. That, at least, is how many in the Middle East interpret the death of Mr. Hariri. Few believe the denials coming from Damascus of a Syrian role in the brutal killing. Indeed, the Kuwaiti daily newspaper as-Seyassah published a claim on Feb. 20, that Assef Shawkat, the newly appointed Syrian Military Intelligence chief, was behind the assassination.
Revealingly, among the loudest voices denouncing Syria have been previously pro-Syrian Lebanese. The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a former Syrian ally who is now in opposition to the Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese governments, has openly condemned Damascus. Mr. Jumblatt should know. Syria is widely suspected of having been behind the assassination of his father, Kamal Jumblatt, in 1977. Even the normally pro-Syrian Lebanese have started to defy their master in Damascus.
What we are facing here is standard Syrian survival strategy of exporting trouble to be able to better retain control at home. What the Syrian regime is saying is that you can have democracy or stability, but you cannot have both. That is why the Syrian Ba’athists are destabilizing Iraq and Lebanon to create havoc and so discredit these fragile democracies. A sectarian war in Iraq between Sunni Arabs, Shiia Arabs and Kurds would suit Syria just fine and conveniently tie up the United States for the foreseeable future. Similarly, chaos in Lebanon justifies a continued Syrian presence.
The U.S. response to this strategy of defiance and destabilization should be to regard the killing of Mr. Hariri as a massive Syrian miscalculation, an opportunity to change policy for the better. The United States must not allow Syria to commit murder and then escape retribution by laying low and hoping that the diplomatic storm will pass. If such an approach is taken, then Damascus will surely strike again. The next U.S. step, following the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, must be to open a front against the Syria Ba’athists in their own backyard. Not a military front, far from it, but a popular civilian offensive. The United States should aim to create the same disequilibrium in Syria that the Syrian Ba’athists so readily encourage elsewhere.
The United States has no need to mobilize its own troops, but should, instead, seek to mobilize Syrians. The Reform Party of Syria, along with other Syrian opposition groups, can mobilize thousands of people for acts of civil disobedience within Syria. To do so, we will need U.S. support. Alone, we will suffer the same fate as the Lebanese. With U.S. assistance, however, we can hold the Ba’athist regime accountable for its crimes at home and abroad. As Mohammad al-Douri, then Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations said on April 10, 2003, the day after Saddam’s statue came down in Baghdad, “The game is over.” If the United States gives the Syrian opposition its backing, the game will be over in Damascus as well.