Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rafik

Assad Returns as the Strong Horse

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis. Read More

As Jonathan noted yesterday, Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense. Hariri went to Damascus with Hezbollah’s bayonet in his back.

Assad’s regime assassinated Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005 for just gingerly opposing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically “positive” statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri’s house earlier this year and had a long and frank discussion about politics with him and some colleagues. I can’t quote him because the meeting was off the record, but trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hezbollah, and it’s not just because someone in that crowd killed his father. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hezbollah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to do a number of things lately — to give it veto power in his government’s cabinet and to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis.

Hariri and his allies in parliament resisted an extraordinary amount of pressure on these points for months before caving in, but cave in they did. They didn’t have much choice. The national army isn’t strong enough to disarm Hezbollah, and unlike Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei, Hariri doesn’t have his own private army. Hezbollah militiamen surrounded his house last year and firebombed his TV station when the government shut down its illegal surveillance system at the airport. At the end of the day, Hariri has to do what Hezbollah and its friends say unless someone with a bigger stick covers his back when push comes to shove.

No one has Hariri’s or Lebanon’s back, not anymore. He and his allies in the “March 14″ coalition have sensed this for some time, which is why Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has grudgingly softened his opposition to Assad and Hezbollah lately. When Hariri went to Damascus, everyone in the country, aside from useless newswire reporters, understood it meant Syria has re-emerged as the strong horse in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt is another member of what David Schenker calls the Murdered Fathers Club. Assad’s ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, put Jumblatt through a similarly gruesome experience back in the 70s during the civil war. First Assad murdered Walid’s father, Kamal, then summoned the surviving Jumblatt to Damascus and forced him to shake hands and pledge his allegiance. Who can even imagine what that must have felt like? Hariri knows now, and Jumblatt still tells everyone he meets all about it.

Hariri generally doesn’t like having long conversations with journalists on the record because he doesn’t want to calculate how everything he says will be simultaneously interpreted in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Israel, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. I can’t say I blame him. He lives under virtual house arrest as it is, with barely more freedom of movement than Hassan Nasrallah. Here is something he said, though, back when it was safer for him to do so: “Action must be taken against Syria, like isolation, to make the Syrians understand that killing members of [Lebanon’s] parliament will have consequences.”

The U.S. and France did effectively isolate Assad with Saudi assistance when George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac were in charge, but presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy think they can save the Middle East by “engaging” its most toxic leaders. Syria, therefore, is no longer isolated. Lebanon’s little anti-Syrian government doesn’t stand a chance under these circumstances, especially not when Hezbollah is the dominant military power in the country.

“It’s a dangerous game these people are playing,” Lebanese activist and political analyst Eli Khoury said last time I spoke with him in Beirut, “but I think it’s only a matter of time until the newcomers burn their fingers with the same realities that we’ve seen over and over again. I’ve seen every strategy: Kissinger’s step-by-step approach, full engagement — which means sleeping with the enemy, basically — and the solid stand as with the Bush Administration. I’ve seen them all. The only one that works so far in my opinion, aside from some real stupid and dumb mistakes, is the severing of relationships. It made the Syrians behave.”

It did make the Syrians behave a bit for a while, but now the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia are bringing Assad in from the cold and giving him cocoa. His influence, naturally, is rising again, in Lebanon and everywhere else. That’s good news for Hezbollah, of course, which means it’s also good news for Iran. It’s bad news for the Lebanese, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, and the Israelis. None of this was inevitable, but — in Lebanon, at least — it was predictable.

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Obama’s Engagement Fallout: Lebanon Surrenders

This past weekend, one of the genuine triumphs of American foreign policy in the past decade was officially reversed. When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri went to Damascus to pay tribute to his country’s Syrian overlord, the 2005 Cedar Revolution was buried. Less than five years ago, American pressure, which encouraged those forces in Lebanon that longed to be free, helped bring about the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had occupied that country since the 1970s. Syria had overreached when it sponsored the assassination of Harriri’s father, Rafik, who preceded him as prime minister. That, combined with the increased influence in the region of the United States in the wake of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, had convinced the Syrians that they must retreat.

But although the Syrian army has not returned, it now doesn’t have to. Hezbollah, the potent terrorist force that serves as a proxy for both Iran and Syria, has effectively strangled any hope of Lebanon’s escaping the grasp of those rogue regimes. Syria’s influence is once more unchallenged in Beirut. Rather than witnessing an international tribunal arraigning Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his underlings for the murder of his father, as well as the transformation of Lebanon into a genuine Arab democracy, Saad Harriri has been compelled to swallow the humiliation of fawning on his father’s murderer.

What changed? According to the New York Times, the failure of Harriri to maintain his country’s independence is due to one major difference between 2005 and 2009: “since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it.” As a result, those who thought they had the West’s backing for resisting the thugs of Damascus have been forced to swallow their pride and swear loyalty to Assad in order to save their lives.

All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

It is worth recalling that back in the fall of 2008, when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin met for the vice-presidential nominees’ debate, Biden committed a gaffe when he claimed that Hezbollah had already been kicked out of Lebanon. Palin didn’t pick up on this blooper, and Biden escaped the derision he deserved for a passage in which he claimed that the best solution for Lebanon was a NATO intervention (had Palin committed such a blunder, she would never have heard the end of it). Biden probably meant Syria when he said Hezbollah, and his intention was to claim that Bush’s policies had failed in Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s revival. But as much as it should be conceded that Bush failed to sufficiently follow up on the Cedar Revolution, we now see what a year of the Obama-Biden administration has achieved in the region.

Their blind belief in engagement, as well as increased pressure on Israel, has emboldened both Syria and Iran. Those wishing to see what kind of difference Obama has made in the Middle East need only regard the wince-inducing spectacle of Saad Harriri bowing to Assad. The consequences of American engagement are not a pretty sight.

This past weekend, one of the genuine triumphs of American foreign policy in the past decade was officially reversed. When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri went to Damascus to pay tribute to his country’s Syrian overlord, the 2005 Cedar Revolution was buried. Less than five years ago, American pressure, which encouraged those forces in Lebanon that longed to be free, helped bring about the withdrawal of the Syrian troops that had occupied that country since the 1970s. Syria had overreached when it sponsored the assassination of Harriri’s father, Rafik, who preceded him as prime minister. That, combined with the increased influence in the region of the United States in the wake of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, had convinced the Syrians that they must retreat.

But although the Syrian army has not returned, it now doesn’t have to. Hezbollah, the potent terrorist force that serves as a proxy for both Iran and Syria, has effectively strangled any hope of Lebanon’s escaping the grasp of those rogue regimes. Syria’s influence is once more unchallenged in Beirut. Rather than witnessing an international tribunal arraigning Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his underlings for the murder of his father, as well as the transformation of Lebanon into a genuine Arab democracy, Saad Harriri has been compelled to swallow the humiliation of fawning on his father’s murderer.

What changed? According to the New York Times, the failure of Harriri to maintain his country’s independence is due to one major difference between 2005 and 2009: “since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it.” As a result, those who thought they had the West’s backing for resisting the thugs of Damascus have been forced to swallow their pride and swear loyalty to Assad in order to save their lives.

All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

It is worth recalling that back in the fall of 2008, when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin met for the vice-presidential nominees’ debate, Biden committed a gaffe when he claimed that Hezbollah had already been kicked out of Lebanon. Palin didn’t pick up on this blooper, and Biden escaped the derision he deserved for a passage in which he claimed that the best solution for Lebanon was a NATO intervention (had Palin committed such a blunder, she would never have heard the end of it). Biden probably meant Syria when he said Hezbollah, and his intention was to claim that Bush’s policies had failed in Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s revival. But as much as it should be conceded that Bush failed to sufficiently follow up on the Cedar Revolution, we now see what a year of the Obama-Biden administration has achieved in the region.

Their blind belief in engagement, as well as increased pressure on Israel, has emboldened both Syria and Iran. Those wishing to see what kind of difference Obama has made in the Middle East need only regard the wince-inducing spectacle of Saad Harriri bowing to Assad. The consequences of American engagement are not a pretty sight.

Read Less




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