Blame it on Syria. Blame it on al-Qaeda. Better yet, blame it both on Syria and al-Qaeda. Without a shred of evidence – or perhaps profiting from “intelligence” amassed by the Pentagon, the Israeli Mossad, or both – the Bush administration immediately blamed Syria for the bombing that killed “Mr Beirut”, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. And Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey.

Taking Baghdad to Beirut may be read for what the denomination implies: the destabilization of Iraq – a key Washington neo-conservative objective – exported to the wider Middle East. What many had feared – the “Lebanonization” of Iraq, bringing back the tragic memories of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 – might be forced, with this assassination, to happen in reverse: the Iraqification of Lebanon.

Sectarian tension will most likely be exacerbated – especially when one knows that sectarianism is enshrined in Lebanon: the president has to be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni (like Hariri) and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite (the parallel is inevitable with Shi’ites/Kurds/Sunnis trying to carve up the new Iraqi government).

The Saudi connection

An unknown “Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant” at first assumed responsibility on al-Jazeera television for the bombing, before another unknown group, the “al-Qaeda Organization in the Levant” dismissed on an Islamist website any Salafist/jihadi involvement. “This is clearly an operation that was planned by a state intelligence agency … and we blame either the Mossad, the Syrian regime or the Lebanese regime,” its statement said. The Levant (Bilad as-Sham in Arabic) historically included Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, before the creation of Israel.

As far as “al-Qaeda” is concerned, it is well known in the Middle East that Palestinians working for the Israeli Mossad have been captured before and posed as members of a fake al-Qaeda cell in Gaza – a perfect justification for Israeli intervention there. The only credible al-Qaeda connection might be related to the fact that Hariri was a Sunni, Saudi-Lebanese billionaire involved in all kinds of deals, some of them shady. He remained heavily connected with Saudi Arabia, and still kept his Saudi passport. Thus the assassination might have been an external operation connected to al-Qaeda’s internal offensive against the House of Saud.

Who benefits?

Only Israel appears to benefit from Hariri’s assassination. Significantly, one of Hariri’s consultants, Mustafa al-Naser, told Iranian state news agency IRNA on Monday that “the assassination of Hariri is the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad’s job, aimed at creating political tension in Lebanon”. An array of Arab Middle East analysts, as well as the Lebanese government, point out that the blast was eerily similar to previous Israeli-orchestrated bombings against former Palestinian leaders.

International public opinion may forget that it was current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then a general, who invaded Lebanon in 1982, supported by falangists, practically destroyed Beirut and plunged Lebanon into civil war. Hariri was Sharon’s opposite: almost single-handedly he guided Beirut’s reconstruction.

Sharon’s government may now blame its fierce enemy Syria – as it has already done – for Hariri’s assassination. Syria and Israel, technically, remain at war. Moreover, if the accusation sticks, Sharon benefits from public opinion turning to revulsion against Syria in the wider Middle East. The logical progression would lead to a joint Israeli/US attack against the Syrian regime by early 2006 at the latest – which, in conjunction with an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, compose what is no secret to anyone: the ultimate neo-con dream ticket.

The neo-con agenda – which happens to be Sharon’s agenda – is once again pure divide and conquer: the aim is to destabilize what neo-cons see as the emerging “Shi’ite crescent” in the Middle East – Iran, the new Iraq and Lebanon, with Syria as a key transit point. A key component of this strategy is to strike a blow against Hezbollah. It’s important to note that the new Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq will be a keen supporter of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah plays a very important political and social role in Lebanese life. As for the 16,000 or so Syrian troops, they are in Lebanon basically to protect it against another Israeli invasion. Israel occupied part of southern Lebanon until it was thrown out by Hezbollah. The Syrian regime is instrumental in helping Hezbollah, as well as an array of Palestinian armed groups. Hezbollah may be aligned with Iran, but its intelligence, weapons and most of all financing flows from Iran to Lebanon via Syria. The White House and the State Department’s key agenda in the current offensive calling for Syria’s troops to leave Lebanon is to cut support for Hezbollah – therefore leaving Israel worry-free as far as its northern border is concerned. Washington’s interest has nothing to do with “spreading freedom” to Lebanon.

Looking for a smoking gun

Locally, everybody is a loser with Hariri’s assassination: the Lebanese; the Syrian government; and other Arab neighbors as well (Hariri was widely respected as a strong leader and a factor of stability).

Syria, with its military stranglehold over Lebanon, may be the usual suspect in the assassination. But the fundamental question – evaded in the Bush administration’s drive to blame Syria – is which Syrian faction might have profited from it.

From the point of view of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the suspicion is a public relations disaster because, if proven guilty, there’s no way Damascus could get away with it unpunished. On a more street-level perspective, many Syrians are quick to point out that the preferred method for the assassination would not have been a car bombing. Syria has the best snipers in the world – something even the Israelis admit.

Last September, Hariri was called to Damascus by Assad and the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, General Rostom Ghazale. Hariri had very good relations with Assad. But Damascus had imposed on the Lebanese parliament a constitutional amendment extending for three years the mandate of the current president, the pro-Syrian General Emil Lahoud. Hariri said he was quitting as premier. Damascus pleaded with him not to. Hariri then joined the opposition to Lahoud.

A few days ago, Syrian Foreign Minister Faruk al-Chareh told Terje Roed-Larsen, the special envoy in charge of applying United Nations resolution 1559 – which calls for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon – that the resolution was “en element of tension” in the Middle East.

The official strategy in Damascus may be of a gradual military pullout from Lebanon. But there is much chatter in diplomatic circles and over the Internet that a serious internal power struggle is going on. Hardline military/security service factions, undermining Assad, might in this case have been responsible for the assassination. Assad would never have authorized a target killing with disastrous consequences for Syrian national interests.
What remains is the evidence of Baghdad in Beirut. Asia Times Online has been repeatedly told by sources in Baghdad close to the Sunni Iraqi resistance, as well as by Shi’ite sources in Najaf, that the paramount response of both Sunni and Shi’ite clerics to the wave of “mysterious” car bombings in Iraq has been to call for no revenge. The iron-clad certainty, on both sides, is that these have been perpetrated not by “terrorists” as the US claims, but rather by Israeli black ops or Central Intelligence Agency-connected American mercenaries, with the intent of fueling sectarian tensions and advancing the prospect of civil war. Now if only someone would come up with a Beirut smoking gun.

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