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Ghosts of Beirut

How the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri transformed the Middle East.


I mistook the explosion that killed Rafiq al-Hariri for a sonic boom, as it rattled the wooden curtain box above my balcony window.

It was almost 1 p.m. on Monday, February 14, 2005, and I was working in our apartment in eastern Beirut, 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) from the blast. The first sense I got that something had happened was my wife telling me, as she walked into the house, that what she had heard was no sonic boom. By midafternoon we knew that Hariri had been assassinated, that the image many of us had seen on our television screens of the charred remains of a victim being lifted onto a stretcher was of the charred remains of Rafiq al-Hariri. In the car sitting next to him was Basil Fuleihan, formerly an economy minister and a friend from my university days. Basil survived but was so badly burned that when he passed away on April 18, the miracle of his being kept alive seemed a curse. A friend who saw the explosion described cars, heavy armor-plated cars, tossed up dozens of meters into the air, as the shockwave made him feel like the flesh was being torn from his body.

Hariri’s killing struck me as astonishing. His enemies had gone too arrogantly far, without gauging the consequences. Unlike a surprising number of other people who had not known the former prime minister (I had met him only twice), I did not take the assassination personally. But I do recall telling a friend that it was the end for Syria in Lebanon, and feeling that now we had to deal with the enormous vacuum left behind by Hariri, because, like or dislike him, he had filled center court in the country for almost fourteen years. I had never been close to the Hariri entourage, and had criticized the prime minister’s social and economic program in the mid-1990s.

But Hariri was no thug; he enjoyed defending his ideas against argumentative journalists, and wouldn’t crack your knees for disagreeing with him. He had a tendency to see the state as a version of himself writ large, and collected people without allowing himself to be played by them. The son of a modest family from the southern port city of Sidon, throughout his social rise he had had the determination and astuteness of the upstart who hasn’t yet acquired a vanity fed by the city. Hariri’s feat was to conquer Beirut, to reinvent himself as a personification of the capital by way of a successful contracting career in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s.

But with Syria always looking over his shoulder, Hariri usually won his hands with three aces, never four. Nothing demonstrated this better than the fact that he was now dead, having tried but failed to pick that fourth ace.

That evening I went to the Hariri residence in the Qoreitem neighborhood to see what the atmosphere was like. As I stood in a crowd outside the door waiting to enter, I heard a young man shout, "If we want to know the truth, it is Syria that killed Hariri."

This was an audacious statement to make then, but not because Syria was innocent, for it was plain that Syria alone had the motive, the means, and the intention of killing Hariri; but because the young man was almost certainly a Sunni Muslim, from a community that had long resisted condemning the Syrians in Lebanon.

Inside the building were hundreds of people, as leaders of the opposition to the government of Prime Minister Omar Karami gathered to issue a statement. When it came, the statement held Syria and the pro-Syrian government responsible for the crime, demanded an independent international investigation, called for the government’s resignation, and demanded that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon. The last point restated the central demand of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 approved the previous September, which had also called on armed groups in Lebanon to surrender their weapons-a provision directed primarily against Hezbollah. The participants insisted that the Syrian withdrawal take place before parliamentary elections in May and June, and declared a three-day general strike. These ideas would be given a label on Friday the eighteenth, when the opposition declared the launching of the Independence Intifada.

I sat next to a European ambassador who told me he had seen Hariri the previous week and inquired whether he was being careful about his security. Hariri had been confident, the ambassador remembered, persuaded that he was protected by his international connections, particularly French President Jacques Chirac. That didn’t quite square with what Hariri’s ally, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said after the killing. Jumblatt had more openly defied Syria than Hariri in recent months and mentioned that he and the former prime minister would discuss which of them would be killed. "He was," Jumblatt later laconically told me. But if that was Hariri’s thinking, then it indicated no certainty that he was safe, unless he was convinced that Jumblatt would be the unlucky one.

The relationship between Hariri and the Syrian regime had always been complicated. For much of his time as prime minister, Hariri had propped up the postwar Syrian order, if not always by conviction. Syrian rule after 1990 rested on a foundation of Arab and international consensus, and Hariri was the Saudis’ stake in Lebanon. However, the bad blood had grown in the months between passage of Resolution 1559 and the assassination. The previous August, Hariri, who headed a parliamentary bloc, had been summoned to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was told to approve a constitutional amendment extending the term of President Émile Lahoud, Hariri’s enemy.

According to Jumblatt, Assad told the former prime minister: "Lahoud is me, if you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon." The Syrians held Hariri responsible for Resolution 1559. This overstated things but was true in that Hariri had influence with Chirac, whose government had jointly sponsored the resolution with Washington. Hariri had even quietly congratulated some Security Council members voting in favor.

In reaction to the extension of Lahoud’s mandate, a small group of politicians and parties formed what became the "Bristol Gathering," for the hotel where they met. This coalition coalesced around a core of longstanding Christian foes of Syria, as well as, for the first time, previous Syrian allies, most prominently Jumblatt, leader to Lebanon’s 200,000-strong Druze community.

Hariri officially remained neutral, but in the weeks before his assassination he and his bloc members more openly displayed their sympathy for the Bristol opposition, earning them threats from government ministers and even from the prime minister. Hariri had his eye on the summer legislative elections, hoping he would be able to reconfirm his popularity and widen his margin of maneuver with the Syrians. Yet he and his allies expected, at best, to win a substantial minority in parliament.

However, Syria’s perception of its domination of Lebanon was inflexible. The Assad regime’s fear of what Hariri, backed by the international community, might do to this domination; its paranoia with regard to Lebanese Sunni mobilization, fortified by Christian and Druze antipathy, which risked giving the wrong ideas to Syria’s own majority Sunni population ruled by a minority Alawite regime — all this made the former prime minister a premier target. It should have been obvious why Hariri risked more than Jumblatt. He was playing a high-stakes game so that his successes endangered Syria’s twenty-nine-year-old rule over Lebanon as well as Assad’s authority at home. Yet the Syrians were wrong in assuming that his removal would impose tranquility. All it did was bring about the outcome the Syrians had sought to avert: the unity of a majority of Sunnis, Druze, and Christians against Syria.

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