The Pro-Syrian prime minister of Lebanon, Omar Karami, has resigned amid allegations that Syria was responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
During the recent conference in London on peace in the Middle East, Blair warned Syria: "it is important to realise that the international community expects certain obligations to be undertaken and adhered to." It´s a shame we don´t live up to our own obligations, eh Tony? The London conference was attended by representatives from the US, Europe, China, Russia and the Arab world. However, Syria was not invited, and Israel chose not to attend.
In September 2004, the US, the UK and France co-sponsored a UN security resolution calling for Syria to pull its troops from Lebanon. However, Assad said a withdrawal would require serious guarantees, and many fear of a return to civil war if withdrawal leaves a power vacuum for rival militias to fill.
Now Syria has announced that her troops will pull back to an area beside the Syrian border. The move has been denounced by the U.S and anti-Syrian Lebanese protestors as nowhere near enough. However, the numbers of Lebanese at the pro-Syrian Hizbollah rally on 8th March easily outnumbered those at the recent anti-Syrian rallies which ousted the government. The state media estimated the turnout at 1.5 million (out of a population of 3.7million), while independent commentators suggested a figure of 400,000 - 500,000 (about 1/8 of the population). The estimate for the largest anti-Syrian rally was 20,000 - 50,000.
Syria are not a model state (although their crimes are no greater than many of our allies), but I am not convinced that Syria engineered, or knew about the assassination of Hariri. Many in the area fear the increase in Israeli power if Syria retreats from the Lebanon.
Bush helpfully commented "Freedom will prevail in Lebanon" - that will be the freedom to do as the U.S tells you.
President of Syria has voiced his fears that Syria will be attacked by the U.S. "If, however, you ask me if I´m expecting an armed attack, well I´ve seen it coming since the end of the war in Iraq. It´s from then that tensions have been rising."
In a move aimed at placating the U.S, Syria handed the half-brother of Saddam Hussein (Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti) to the interim Iraqi government after months of denying that he was in Syria. He has also promised to pull troops from Lebanon, but has given no timetable.
His father sent troops into Lebanon with U.S approval in 1976, and joined with the U.S to push Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991, and almost negotiated Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights in 2000.
Lebanon remains of key importance to Syria financially, commercially and politically. Damascus is very close to the Lebanese border, and Syria fears Israeli expansion.
The Christian pro-Syrian president of Lebanon had a comfortable majority, but may now experience difficulties putting together a government due to the change in public opinion since the assassination.
He was widely accused of cowardice during the political crisis in 1988 (when the now exiled President Aoun was installed as caretaker president against the wishes of Syria), and allegedly tried to talk Aoun into dealing with Syria to maintain his position - Aoun refused. He was fired by Aoun, and ran to Syria who gave him the position of Commander of the Army in 1989. The Syrians invaded in 1990 and defeated Aoun´s forces.
From 1993, Lahoud presided over a dramatic transformation in the Lebanese military. He instituted national service, expanding the military from around 20,000 personnel to 65,000 personnel and re-equipped them with arms donated or sold at nice low prices by the U.S.
Before becoming president, Bashar al-Assad helped his father by acting to weaken the power of Syrian Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam (whose main allies were Prime Minister Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt). Assad installed Lahoud in hopes of gaining favour with the Christians in Lebanon, and Lahoud won the parliamentary election. He gained popular support for his "war on corruption" that prosecuted several cabinet ministers and appointees from the Hariri administration on charges of embezzlement, misuse of power, and bribery. However, this ran into problems with Syria as they were implicated in illegal dealings with Hariri.
After his assassination, he was hailed as a Statesman. However, in Beirut Hariri was hated and distrusted by many for his controlling interest in the giant post-war Lebanese reconstruction company Solidere, which has been accused of corruption, carrying out forcible evictions, and fraud.
He made powerful connections with Saudi royals in the 1970s by building the hotel for an Islamic summit in months. In 1979, he established the Al-Hariri Foundation to support education and reconstruction. Critics said he used the foundation to fund the militias involved in Lebanon's civil war.
Hariri worked closely with President Hafaz al-Assad´s (Pro Syrian) government, mediated between the Syrians and the Lebanese warlords and brokered the Taif Peace Accords in 1989. He then began profiting from the rebuilding works in Beirut. The Lebanese Transparency Association, called his work "a textbook case of legitimised corruption" as wartime organisations were incorporated into new public institutions while former militia members were integrated into the administration.
A previously unheard-of jihadist group claimed responsibility for his assassination, citing the allegation that Hariri was 'an agent of Syria' and has suspicious links with the Saudi royal family. This was rejected by Lebanese authorities, but the low tech attack (a car bomb detonated by a suicide bomber) looks more like a jihadi attack than a Syrian assassination.
With no oil resources, Syria´s economy is weaker than Iran´s and the government of Bashar al-Assad is seen as less popular and more fragile than the Iranian mullahs. Top army and security service posts are in the hands of a minority sect. Long-standing unrest from banned Islamic fundamentalist groups, as well as Kurds, can be manipulated.
Syrian agreed to U.S demands for controls at the border to stop insurgents passing into Iraq, and organised polling stations for expatriates to vote in last month's Iraqi elections. However, Syrian unwisely, pressed the Lebanese parliament to extend the pro-Syrian president's term. Syria continues to demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, seized in 1967.
If Syria did arrange the assignation of Rafik Hariri, it was an act of political suicide. The US and Israel are dying for an excuse to attack Syria either by diplomatic, economic or military means.
If Syria did not arrange the assassination, the main suspects are;
* far-right Christians who want Syria out of Lebanon
* Islamist extremists who disliked his ties with Syria or Saudi Arabia
* One of Hariri's many enemies
* Israel (who has a history of assassinating opponents in Beirut, Tunis, Malta, Amman and Damascus)
Syria has a very poor human rights record, and neither Amnesty nor Human Rights Watch are currently allowed official access - Human Rights Watch
Bush´s "Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act" (http://www.2la.org/lebanon/syriaac2003.htm) imposed economic sanctions on Syria last May, and the U.S policy document "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" (drafted in 1996 for the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu) advocates "weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria".
In September, Bush persuaded France to co-sponsor a UN security council resolution which called for Syria to withdraw the troops it has had in Lebanon since the civil war.
Ariel Sharon and his Likud party have long seen their Syrian neighbour as a more direct menace than distant Iran. Syria's support for Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon and the Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories irritates the Israeli´s, and Hizbullah´s reputation within the Arab world as the only group which has forced the Israeli army to retreat is a constant source of annoyance.
Israel attacked Lebanon with impunity for decades, before the installation of Syrian troops, and Hizbullah rockets have also proven a useful deterrent to Israeli aggression. In fact it was Hizbullah who forced Israel out of south Lebanon after their 22-year occupation.
Hamas won 75 out of 118 seats in municipal elections in Gaza, and Hizbullah has widespread support in Lebanon (including 12 members in parliament). The U.S and Israel may hate both organisations, but can hardly argue they are promoting Democracy when demanding that the groups are banned.
The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice said there was "firm evidence" that Islamic Jihad (based in Syria) had helped plan a recent bombing in Tel Aviv, while Israel blamed Syria and warned that it could retaliate with air raids. Islamic Jihad have an office in Damascus. However, Islamic Jihad is not the Syrian Government but a minority party. Bombing Damascus following an attack by them would be like bombing Northern Ireland after an IRA attack.
Islamic Jihad claimed the bombing was in retaliation for the arrests of dozens of Palestinians and the killing of three by Israel. The organisation also accused the Palestinian Authority of acting for American interests.
Zeev Boim (Israel´s deputy defence minister) said Israel could repeat its 2003 attack on Syria in response to a suicide bombing. "Operations by us against Syria are certainly possible. We have done it in the past. If Assad needs another message from us then he will certainly get it,"
Rime Allaf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs warned "the endgame for the US and Israel is the isolation of Syria. Whenever there's a chance to put Syria in a corner, they´re taking it. But I don´t think the US will try to force regime change."
Israel also has a very poor human rights record (http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/isr-summary-eng). In 2003, Israel reintroduced the "Illegal Combatants Law," to legitimize (retroactively) the continued detention without trial of Lebanese hostages. The act allows persons to be held indefinitely on the assumption of guilt - sound familiar? (http://www.hrw.org/wr2k3/mideast5.html)
Blair has carefully avoided laying the blame for the assassination on anyone, but Jack Straw says Syria is the prime suspect although there is no evidence to prove it. Of course, the Blair Government is often sure of "facts" that it has no evidence to support.