TCS Daily


Syria, Leaving with a Bang?

By Olivier Guitta - March 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Back in December 2004, Rafik Hariri said that in Lebanon "one should expect anything and especially the worse." Obviously, at that time he had no idea that the worse would be his own death.

Rafik Hariri was the billionaire Lebanese businessman turned politician who had been prime Minister of his country on and off until September 2004 when he joined the opposition.

Of course he knew he was threatened -- even special United Nations Mideast envoy Terje Roed Larsen warned him a few days before his assassination -- but he thought that the Syrians would not dare kill him because of his stature and close friendship with President Chirac of France and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. As reported by some Arabic newspapers, Hariri was physically threatened at his home in January 2005 when meeting with the Syrian "Governor of Lebanon" -- the de facto ruler of the country -- General Rustom Ghazale. The latter took out his gun and demanded that Hariri chose between Syria and UN Resolution 1559, which calls among other things for Syria's total evacuation of Lebanon.

Even though it has been widely established that Syria was involved in Hariri's assassination, the naysayers are advancing among others this reasoning: Syria knew for sure the backlash that the murder of Hariri would trigger so, why would they decide to go ahead anyway?

The answers are simple.

First and foremost, Assad is playing for his own survival. In fact if Assad leaves Lebanon, then his regime's days are numbered. He is a desperate man. And a desperate man can do desperate things. Having killed Hariri directly or indirectly was a very desperate act, but he had nothing to lose.

In fact, when Hariri decided to join the opposition and built a real national alliance among Sunnis, Druzes and Christians, Assad knew that the upcoming May elections would be lost by his goons.

One of the most understudied aspects of this crisis is the economic factor: Lebanon is Syria's cash cow. According to a World Bank estimate, Lebanon brings year in year out $5.5 billion to Syria. To put this figure in perspective, Syria's total exports for 2003 were about $5.1 billion.

Syria's economy is in shambles especially after the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, which was one of the biggest sources of revenues for Assad. So, Lebanon is now doubly important for the regime's survival.

According to the CIA World Factbook and the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, for instance, in 2003, the Syrian GDP decreased 3.3%, the unemployment rate is about 22% and 20% of the population is below the poverty line. 500,000 Syrian workers are employed in Lebanon and contribute to the Syrian economy by sending money back to their families in Syria.

In such an environment, Syria will use any means to avoid leaving Lebanon. This was confirmed by four different government and opposition sources cited by the Financial Times. These sources explained that Syria would burn Beirut rather than leave it. Also they added that Syrians told them: "We destroyed the country once and we can do it again -- we will never allow ourselves to be pushed out." And obviously, Syria is preparing for violent action: according to the Arabic news website elaph.com, in a massive destabilization operation started a few weeks ago, Syria has been providing its allies with 10,000 weapons and rocket-launchers. Also, the Lebanese daily An-Nahar reported that Syrian troops are reinforcing their positions in the mountain region, obviously preparing for active combat. By also using its proxy terrorist organization, the Shia Lebanese group Hizbullah, Syria is surely going to foment violence in order to show its legitimacy in remaining in Lebanon to insure security. In the past, Syria has been using the tactic of the pyromaniac fireman; this time it should be no different.

After the end of Assad's speech to Parliament, the MPs all rose and yelled: "With blood and tears we will fight for you O Bashar". Let's hope it will be only a figure of speech but unfortunately in light of all this it might not be. The velvet Cedar revolution might not turn unfortunately into a bloodless adventure. Violence through the Syrian Army or Hizbullah, its proxy terrorist organization, is more than likely.

The world - the US, France, the UN -- should be ready for a show of force with Syria and therefore act accordingly. Verbal support for the courageous Lebanese opposition might not be enough...

Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specialized in the Middle East and Europe.


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