Who Killed Hariri?
September 28, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >
Who Killed Hariri?
BY NIBRAS KAZIMI
September 28, 2005
In February, a couple of weeks after Rafiq Hariri's assassination in Beirut, I pegged the blame for the murder on the Syrian leadership, who I claimed had acted through their acolytes, Hezbollah. My reasoning at the time was that the Syrians had the motive and the means, and that the only terrorist team that could pull off such a delicate operation was the one headed by the Lebanese terrorist Imad Mughniyeh.
A couple of months later, while visiting Lebanon, I surveyed the site of the blast and changed my mind: the bombing that killed Hariri along the waterfront was too big and too flashy and thus did not bear Mughniyeh's signature. Would the Syrians do such a thing on their own? Unlikely; too high a risk of being caught. No, this job was done by a Lebanese network, but which one if not Mughniyah's "A-Team"? The likely suspects were the Syrian loyalists in charge of the Lebanese security apparatus.
Yes, blaming the heads of the Lebanese security apparatus seemed the rational thing to do, and a little too easy. At the top of the list was the much-feared director of General Security, General Jamil Al-Sayyid. I went to visit him in May at his home, but was much disappointed: instead of finding a nefarious and evil spymaster, I found a vain and very proper military officer. Al-Sayyid seemed genuinely stung by the accusation that drove him to volunteer his resignation after decades of service to the Lebanese state. He had an "I'll show them" attitude that involved setting-up his own think-tank and publishing a liberal newspaper: he would launch a political career and avenge his sullied name and track record. He did not strike me as a man that would be smartly sinister enough, or gullibly dumb enough, to be involved in the Hariri murder.
Since resigning, Al-Sayyid had managed to regain some respectability through a long interview that was serialized over several days in a leading Arabic newspaper. He was even seen about town dining with the American ambassador at an Italian restaurant in downtown Beirut.
But Al-Sayyid, along with three other top officers, was arrested last month by the Lebanese authorities on the recommendation of the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is running the United Nations-mandated investigation into the assassination. Mehlis is supposed to hand in his final report by Oct. 25. A lot is riding on Mr. Mehlis, including the culpability of the Syrian regime in ex-Prime Minister Hariri's murder. His report could amount to a casus belli against the Assad dynasty by the international community. The only problem is that I think that Mr. Mehlis has very little by way of a smoking gun, but rather can only establish motive and some circumstantial evidence.
The Mehlis Mess?
There was talk of a defector, who in the first account leaked by Saudi intelligence was supposed to be Major Zuheir S., a Syrian intelligence officer with direct oversight of activities in Lebanon. The Saudis had helped him defect and then took him to Paris (where he was debriefed by the French and then Mr. Mehlis) and to Cairo (where the Egyptian spooks figured out that he was lying) and then to Spain (where he met Rifa'at Assad, an exiled claimant to the throne of his nephew, Bashar, and a chum of the Saudis).
The Syrians countered by leaking a brief biography of Zuheir Siddique, who turns out to be in their account a colorful con man with seven wives and a checkered career in the annals of fraud all over Syria and Lebanon. He had somehow snookered the Saudis, the French and Mr. Mehlis into believing that he was credible and could prove Syrian blameworthiness. Sources keep telling me that this guy was Mr. Mehlis's trump card and that the Syrians had found it easy to discredit his testimony. Other information that Mr. Mehlis had acted on and that found its way into the Lebanese press is also turning out to be wrong.
One theory talks about a cover-up at the scene of the crime, but making that work would require the Lebanese bureaucracy to be more efficient than it is. The supposed cover-up could be explained away as fumbling rather than malice. Moreover, the four top suspects - who headed four rival security and military branches - loathe each other, and it is very hard to envision them working together to kill Hariri.
Even the handling of the investigation by Mehlis seems sloppy and is "operating on ad hoc law" that is in contravention of what the U.N. set down in its related resolution and would not hold up in court, according to Al-Sayyid's lawyer, Akram Azzouri, speaking in a telephone interview on Monday.
Accepting Mr. Mehlis's thesis would make one hesitant to entertain yet another suspect entity: a Sunni fundamentalist group with the "previously unknown" tag. Sunni fanatics in carefree Beirut? The mental image just does not seem to fit, but I am slowly getting used to it. Omar Bakri, the militant fundamentalist who was recently kicked out of Britain after spending 20 years there and heralding the day when the Islamic flag shall flutter triumphantly over 10 Downing Street, is now beseeching his followers to join him in Beirut. An appendage of Zarqawi's organization in Iraq is branching out under the name of Jund al-Sham into both Syria and the northern Lebanese town of Trablous. Shia-Sunni tensions across Lebanon are also surfacing and creating a political atmosphere that harks back to the civil war days.
The Syrian regime is nasty and horrible: they are a relic of a defunct Ba'athist totalitarian ideology that rules through vicious sectarian domination. There are plenty of reasons for undermining and overthrowing them, but on the current evidence, Hariri's murder should not be one of these reasons. Given what I know after following this story for a while, I am less certain today that they or their acolytes - whether Hizbullah or Al-Sayyid - are indeed guilty of this particular foul deed.
The Mehlis investigation could be barking up the wrong tree, and this would have immense repercussions. There seems to be a frenzy of wishful thinking in Washington and Beirut that Herr Sherlock Holmes would nobly and irrefutably expose just how evil the Syrians really are, but everyone may be in for a major disappointment. The Egyptians have already figured out that the whole affair is going in the wrong direction and seem to be jumping ship. The Syrians are having a field day by poking holes in the supposed "evidence" against them and their Lebanese lackeys, and they have dispatched their smug No. 2 intelligence man to Paris with a big dossier to bolster the argument of their "innocence."
But the question remains: who killed Hariri? Whoever did it has wedded terrorism to long-term strategic planning. In the old days, regimes like Assad's or Saddam's or the Iranian mullahs, had mastered this dark art. But what if al-Qaeda is planning to use Lebanon as a launch pad to bring down the regime in Syria? There is more to this bigger picture, and scapegoating the Syrians may be easy but dangerous if it serves other interested parties skulking in the shadows.
Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer based in Washington D.C., and currently traveling around the Middle East. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
September 28, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >