The news from Lebanon is getting worse and worse. On Wednesday, François Hajj, a prominent general in the Lebanese Army, was killed in a massive car bombing near Beirut. He is the ninth Lebanese political figure to be murdered since the car-bombing of Rafik Hariri in 2005 kicked off Syria’s killing spree.
The rationale behind Hajj’s murder is the same rationale that has been behind every such assassination, save for a few small strategic details. As Walid Phares notes,
the slain commander had in past months and years refused to accept Hezbollah’s exclusive areas of control in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa valley. Moreover he was credited for coordinating the Lebanese Army offensive against the Fatah [al-] Islam Terror group in Nahr al Bared camp in north Lebanon over the summer. The strike can be understood as a message to the Lebanese Army not to attempt to confront terror groups in the future, including Hezbollah.
Michael Young, who is always required reading on Lebanon, adds that
The Syrians are accelerating their return to Lebanon, and the disastrous French initiative on the presidency only confirmed to them that the international community would readily engage Syria on Lebanon. As for the United States, it has been comatose. . . . The French and the Americans have been neutralized in Lebanon. . . . Creating a [political power] vacuum is not a strategy; it is a tactic designed to bring someone to power on Syria’s terms. Damascus wants exclusivity in the next Lebanese president, but without its armed forces in the country to impose this, a new officeholder might prove too independent.
Those are the specific reasons, but the larger reason is Syria’s dedication to regaining its former prominence in the eastern Mediterranean. As Tony Badran writes in an excellent post about the assassination,
Assad wants an American and regional (read Saudi) mandate for his colonization of Lebanon. This is the same reason why he wants talks with the Israelis, as he believes that would be his ticket to the U.S., and consequently, for his return to Lebanon. The Europeans and Arabs thought, and some might still think, that if you offer Syria the prospect of the Golan, then they would leave Lebanon alone.
The problem with the way America and France view Syria is in thinking that the Assad regime is possessed of a set of discrete interests, each of which can be isolated and placated on its own terms. It would make our job easier if the Syrians actually thought this way, but there is no evidence that they do. The Syrian “interests” that we fret over are only the tips of an iceberg, a grand vision in which Syria pursues what it believes is a rightful ambition to regain its former glory as a preeminent regional power. Suddenly it doesn’t look like another Nancy Pelosi listening tour of Damascus is going to make much of a difference, does it?
One of the fundamental tasks of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era should have been the establishment in the Middle East of a very simple principle: that the United States will defend its friends and punish its enemies. In Lebanon, as Syria methodically murders the leaders of the Cedar Revolution, we are again sending the wrong signals — that we will abandon our friends if loyalty to them becomes inconvenient or costly, and we will reward our enemies when we tire of their intransigence. Nothing good will come of this, either for us or for the brave and beleaguered Lebanese patriots whom we promised not to abandon.