Talisman Gate

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ashen Cedars

February 15, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Ashen Cedars

February 15, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/27659

Who among Washington's diplomats and spooks, will take responsibility for smashing Lebanon, should that be the consequence of their half-measures?

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the terrorist attack that targeted and killed former Prime Minister Hariri. It has been an eventful year for Lebanon: the murder heralded a public outcry that galvanized a nation into action, giving the world beautifully choreographed images of young Lebanese men and women defying 30 years of Syrian occupation. It was called the Cedar Revolution by the west, and gave much heart to the Bush administration, coming only two months after the president had, in his second inaugural address, articulated a fundamental shift in American policy in the Middle East towards democracy. Then there were elections, and the parliamentary majority was carried by those who had pushed for Syria's ouster. At the time, it seemed as if Washington had notched up yet another victory and had bet on a winning horse. Hundreds of thousands gathered to mark the occasion yesterday, and again it all looked wonderful on TV, giving everyone false comfort that all is well.

Yet, for all the enthusiasm generated by these sincere young Lebanese democrats in the making, there was no policy beyond the photo-op, no legislation beyond the rhetoric. The momentum generated last year was squandered as the country's politics were relegated to long-standing models of power-sharing among its sects, and the opportunity to build a unifying identity was missed by America's policymakers, who decided to place their trust in local leaders tactically disinterested in moving beyond factionalism. What Washington missed was the fact that the bad guys in the Middle East, such as the rulers of Iran and Syria, are far more adept at manipulating the sectarian game, acting through proxies that have been cultivated for decades.

Mysterious bombings, all against iconic figures of the anti-Syrian camp, began to go off as part of a wider campaign of destabilization. Most reflexively blamed Syria, but there is a dark harbinger that the labyrinthine machinations of Lebanese power politics are going to be get further twisted, and are to become even more relevant to America's regional policy. The policymakers are unprepared.

The new development revolves around speculation that an Al Qaeda cell that had been rounded up a little over a month ago may have had a hand in killing Hariri. One member of this cell, who managed to escape the dragnet, was Khalid Taha, who apparently was the handler of Ahmad Abu Ades, the suspected suicide bomber or at least the fall guy in the Hariri plot. Most of the detainees are Syrian nationals, but they also include a Saudi, a Jordanian and several Palestinians. According to one source I have spoken to, two of the detainees allegedly confessed to witnessing the car bomb being rigged with explosives in the 'Ain Al-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp. Other published accounts say that one of them admitted to taping and editing the video made by Abu Ades in which he attributed the attack to a previously unknown jihadist group.

There is more to this story that will probably shift the United Nations investigation from the path previously followed by the outgoing investigator, Detlev Mehlis. His successor, the Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, has taken a keen interest in following up the Al-Qaeda lead.

However, as the Al-Qaeda connection comes further into focus, a key question will be whether Syria manipulated this Al-Qaeda cell to do its bidding? If so, then isn't this a matter as serious as the Taliban harboring Osama Bin Laden? It could make the liberation of Syria a natural extension of the war against terror. But would the internal American dynamic bear the weight of starting another war, and in an election year? And what would happen to how the Middle East perceives America's sincerity in propagating democracy and foiling terror if the administration decides to pass on punishing Syria?

Such a Syria-Al-Qaeda connection is exactly what is being peddled by America's allies in Lebanon, who are poised to release these talking points once this new track in the investigation is publicly disclosed. This camp is nominally led by the Saudi-born and raised, half-Iraqi, 30-something political neophyte and heir to his late father's legacy, Saad Hariri.

Hariri Junior was feted last month in Washington on the grandest of scales, even though at the time he was received in the White House, he had been AWOL from the Lebanese political scene for four months, hiding out in Paris and Riyadh while orchestrating his tasks as head of the parliamentary majority and by extension the governmental executive from the safety of distant capitals. He seems to be a nice guy, but there is a growing realization that he is not up to task. His Saudi and French patrons - suddenly trusted by Washington as the midwives for a new post-Syrian Lebanon - marketed him as a national leader, something his father never was in life as leader of Lebanon's Sunnis. But for the younger Hariri to amount to an all-inclusive leader the sectarian superstructure would have to be dismantled, something that early on in his parliamentary victory could have been done to unite a deeply divided country, but wasn't.

The Maronites saw through the charade, and their voting pattern showed that they overwhelmingly picked one of their own, the maverick Michel Aoun, rather than their coreligionists running on the Hariri slate. The Shias, who form the plurality of Lebanon's population, sensed that the coalition of Sunni, Druze, and non-Maronite Christian factions led by Hariri and blessed by America, Saudi Arabia, and France had played them out of the game and into Syria's arms, thus fortifying Hezbollah's grip on the community. Thinking that Hariri had matters under control, Washington did not bother to cultivate either Aoun or the Shia bourgeoisie who may have challenged Hezbollah and sold their increasingly prosperous kinsmen on an alliance in support of democracy, mimicking the line set down by the faith's leaders in Iraq's holy city of Najaf.

But Hariri is unable to hold down the fort, as demonstrated when his prime minister semantically got Hezbollah off the hook by classifying them as "resistance" rather than a "militia" and thus immune to U.N. resolutions calling for disarmament. Spurned by Hariri and America, Aoun last week cemented an alliance with Hezbollah, turning Lebanese politics on its head through a Maronite-Shia alliance in the face of everyone else. And to make matters worse, the recent burning of the Danish Embassy in Beirut by angry Sunnis disclosed that Hariri has lost ground on the fringes of his community to Islamist radicals.

So what happens next? Hariri has failed to deliver, while Syria's chief proxies, huddled around Hezbollah, have emerged supreme. The U.N. investigation is probably veering into identifying an Al Qaeda cell as the culprit behind Hariri's murder, which would either get the Syrians off the suspects list and back in force, or lead to a war should it turn out that Damascus furthered its agenda by acting through the jihadist murderers. Lebanon is a mess in the making that touches on every single aspect of the Middle Eastern conundrum: sectarian warfare, Iranian-Syrian networks, Al-Qaeda havens, dark Saudi designs and threats to Israel's security.

Lebanon is the case study that America's strategy cannot be subcontracted out to "allies" who are out of step with its vision for democracy. The Bush administration must quickly re-assess this volatile situation and reassert control.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

February 15, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >