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.
Lebanese Opposition Suspects Syria
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.
Unilateral American action will not do. The international community as a whole -- led by the United Nations along with the Arab League -- must exert pressure on Syria, as well as engage the Syrian leadership politically, in order to assure them that Lebanon will not become a hostile theater against Syrian interests.
Syria needs to be persuaded that pulling out does not mean it will be targeted as a next step by American forces. Syria's leaders believe the invasion of Iraq and the recent pressure on them are designed to topple the nation's Baath regime. Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon believe they are being targeted by the United States.
As to Lebanon, there exists no real fear that if Syria does withdraw, it could mean a return to the same factionalism that led to the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. If there is one thing the assassination has shown, it's that the Lebanese are deeply committed to regaining their sovereignty and independence. Although the Lebanese remain divided, a consensus has emerged that they are not willing to plunge once again into full sectarian strife. They have learned from their previous mistakes.
The Syrian presence in Lebanon has become a major obstacle to both Syria and Lebanon. Far from remaining a strategic card in the hands of the Syrian regime, its military presence has turned into a liability. It is no longer a strategic asset. The longer they remain, the more damage their presence will do to political institutions in Lebanon, to a healthy political life and to Syrian-Lebanese relations.
Engage the Major Players
The question of Hezbollah is critical. It may lie at the heart of the ability of the Lebanese to create a viable political system and a sense of community. The challenge is to integrate Hezbollah into the structure of Lebanese society and to transform Hezbollah's paramilitary structure. Hezbollah has its own military apparatus in the name of protecting the homeland against Israel.
This is really the most existential challenge facing Lebanon now and after Syria pulls its forces out: How do you give Hezbollah a political stake so that it sheds its military character and becomes a purely political entity? The best way to do this is for the United States and the international community to engage fully in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without a regional settlement, you're going to have a dissatisfied Syria and a dissatisfied Iran, and both of them are more than willing to use Hezbollah to exert pressure on Israel.
And yes, it is risky for the United States to pressure European countries to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, as the Bush administration is doing. Sticks are being used exclusively without carrots. What the United States and the international community must try to do is engage the various players -- including Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Hezbollah -- because without a settlement that includes all of them, you'll never have peace in that part of the world.
Hezbollah is part of the fabric of the Shiite community in Lebanon now, and the Shiite community represents about 55 percent of Lebanon's population. You must deal with the root problem -- the simmering Arab-Israeli conflict and the volatile situation in Iraq.
The war in Iraq has had a direct impact on the situation in Lebanon. One cannot understand recent developments in Lebanon without understanding the upheaval raging in Iraq. Syria is becoming more anxious about its own security, not to mention its interest in Lebanon. The leadership in Damascus is terrified it will be the next target on the Bush administration's list of rogue states. The Syrian leadership and the opposition in Lebanon are both reacting to the situation in the region.
There needs to be a regionwide solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, or at least a comprehensive diplomatic engagement by the international community. Barring such a settlement and serious engagment, neither Syria nor Iran (and their local clients -- Hezbollah, Hamas and Jihad) will accept the rules of the existing game.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a consultant for ABC News. A professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a Middle East scholar, he is author of the forthcoming "The Jihadis: Unholy Warriors" (Harcourt Press).