Analysis: Can Lebanon Region Be Calmed?

ByABC News
February 18, 2005, 10:52 AM

Feb. 18, 2005 — -- Employing a massive explosive device, assassins killed the former prime minister of Lebanon in the streets of Beirut last week. The brazen attack immediately heightened tensions in the country, threatening a fragile peace that has endured since 1990, when Lebanon's bloody civil war came to a close.

The slain leader, Rafik Hariri, was a critic of the powerful role played in Lebanon by neighboring Syria, which maintains some 14,000 troops on Lebanese soil. Syrian leaders condemned Hariri's killing, but the United States moved quickly to increase international pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops.

What does Hariri's assassination mean for Lebanon and its potential to further destabilize an already volatile region? Although many Lebanese pointed fingers at Syria, why would the Damascus regime embark on such a shockingly bold and risky move? Why would Damascus take such a risk? How can regional actors and the international community avoid another disaster in the Middle East?

At the outset, there is no smoking gun, no concrete evidence of who committed this heinous crime. Even so, the opposition in Lebanon and Hariri's family clearly hold the Syrian and Lebanese governments responsible for the blast. The international community also appears to be leaning toward the theory that rogue elements of Syrian intelligence or pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon had a hand in the attack.

The opposition in Lebanon claims that killing Hariri was designed to intimidate and silence them. In the last few weeks, pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon accused Hariri of funding the opposition and running the show from behind the scenes. The logic of the opposition goes like this: By going to the top, Syria was sending a powerful signal that anyone who dares to defy Syria will be targeted.

If that was the case, it was very risky. In fact, it defies common sense, because Syria has been under considerable international scrutiny. The United Nations demanded recently that Syria pull its forces out of Lebanon. The United States has been exerting pressure on Syria. The noose has been tightening around the neck of Syria's leaders, trying to force them to sever links to Lebanon. Syria must have known that such a risky venture would bring the full weight of international opinion down on its head.

I doubt Syrian President Bashar Assad has blood on his hands or would give an order to assassinate Hariri. But that does not mean that some rogue Syrian agents or pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon were not involved. We just do not know. We have no evidence. We are speculating.

The critical question facing the international community, along with the league of the Arab States, is how can they persuade Syria to withdraw its security forces from Lebanon.