United Nations officials announced February 18 that a UN commission of inquiry has been assigned to investigate the February 14 assassination of Hariri. The UN probe had been demanded by both Paris and Washington as well as by a section of the opposition in Lebanon that Hariri had led.
In a February 21 speech, U.S. president George Bush called Damascus an oppressive occupying power in Lebanon.
Our shared commitment to democratic progress is being tested in Lebanona once-thriving country that now suffers under the influence of an oppressive neighbor, Bush said February 21 during a visit to Belgium as part of a five-day European tour. Just as the Syrian regime must take stronger action to stop those who support violence and subversion in Iraq, and must end its support for terrorist groups seeking to destroy the hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Syria must also end its occupation of Lebanon.
There are some 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon today. Damascus first deployed soldiers to Lebanon in 1976, a year after civil war broke out. The Syrian forces in Lebanon have ensured a pro-Damascus stance on the part of successive Lebanese governments since the civil war ended in 1990.
The government of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud at first announced that it would not cooperate with the UN investigators, who are being led by a commissioner from the Irish national police. As pressure from both the imperialist powers and the domestic opposition intensified, Lebanese officials said they would cooperate with the UN probe.
Opposition parties in the Lebanese parliament have been calling for intervention from the United Nations to investigate the bombing that killed Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate, and 15 others. Opponents of the Lahoud government have called for a peaceful independence uprising. The opposition mobilized thousands February 21, a week after Hariris death, to demand that Syrian troops be withdrawn. Samir Franjieh, a leader of Qornet Shehwan Gathering, one of the opposition groups, urged Lebanese to continue protesting daily at Hariris grave in Martyrs Square in Beirut. He called upon the government to resign, and for the establishment of a transition cabinet as a prelude to elections, AP reported.
On the day following the assassination, Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and began to ratchet up its international campaign for the Syrian government to pull its troops out of Lebanon.
Washington and Paris
The United States and Europe share an interest in a democratic, independent Lebanon, Bush said in the February 21 speech. My nation and France worked to pass Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands that Lebanons sovereignty be respected, that foreign troops and agents be withdrawn, and that free elections be conducted without foreign influence. Pointing to the elections organized in Iraq and Afghanistan under U.S. occupation and the recent national presidential election in the occupied Palestinian territories, Bush said, Without Syrian interference, Lebanons parliamentary elections in the spring can be another milestone of liberty.
Paris and Washington are jockeying for position in Lebanon and Syria, former French colonial possessions that Paris still considers part of its sphere of influence. Unlike its open disagreement with the U.S. government over the Iraq invasion, Paris has so far been working closely with its rival in Washington to weaken Damascuss influence in Lebanon.
Chirac was one of the first to call for an international inquiry into Hariris assassination and the French president traveled to Lebanon two days afterward, ostensibly to pay his respects to the Hariri family. Lebanese defense minister Abd al-Rahim Murad accused Chirac of giving encouragement to Lebanons opposition during the visit. Murad said Chirac snubbed government officials, including President Lahoud, Al-Jazeera reported.
Speaking to France-3 television February 18, Bush said he and Chirac should set aside past differences and focus on the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, the Associated Press reported. Asked what course he would take if Damascus refused to withdraw troops from Lebanon, Bush replied, the Syrians will get the message if the international community speaks with one voice.
The Bush administration is considering a range of new sanctions it could impose against Syria, and U.S. administration officials have suggested that international sanctions may be sought, possibly through the United Nations.
Under the provisions of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which flew through the U.S. Congress with near-unanimous approval in November 2003, Washington already maintains a series of economic sanctions against Syria. It could use the act to deny Syrian commercial aircraft the right to fly over U.S. airspace and to prohibit U.S. companies from doing business with Syria. Bush could also issue an executive order freezing Syrian assets in U.S. banks. Using the Patriot Act, the president has the authority to cut off Syrias access to banking institutions that serve as clearinghouses for international transactionsnot just with the United States, the Washington Post reported.
To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder, Bush said in his February 2 State of the Union speech. Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region.
Washington has accused Damascus of harboring supporters of the former Baath Party government of Saddam Hussein, who U.S. officials say are now involved in financing and leading the armed insurgency in Iraq.
The U.S. government has reportedly made some progress in pressuring Damascus to tighten up security along its borders with Iraq. In addition to stepping up its border patrols, Syria has built a berm and several watchtowers along a portion of the southern reach of the border, the Los Angeles Times reported February 7.
Its minimal, to be honest, said Lt. Col. Christopher Woodbridge, a commander of a Marine battalion along the Syrian border, referring to the increased Syrian presence at the border. But its done a lot to shut down mortar attacks.
The Times reported that the Marines began stopping passenger trains from Damascus to Baghdad late last year. So brazen had the insurgents become, the Times reported, that they were putting foreign fighters on passenger trains that passed within a stones throw of the main Marine camp here.
Pressure on Iran
Washington has also used the events in Lebanon to press its campaign against the Iranian government. In addition to demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops, U.S. officials are also calling for the disbanding of Hezbollah, a large political party and militia based in the Shiite Muslim community in southern Lebanon, which led a military campaign against the occupation of that region by Israeli forces. The group, which reportedly receives support from both Damascus and Tehran, is on Washingtons list of terrorist organizations.
Washington accuses the Iranian government of sponsoring terror because of its support for Hezbollah. UN Resolution 1559 includes a call for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militiasa clear reference to Hezbollah.
Paris has so far rebuffed appeals by Washington and Tel Aviv to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, a move Washington hopes to use to shut down the groups offices and cut off its fund-raising activities in Europe, as it has done in the United States.
In response to the stepped-up threats, the Iranian government said it would form a common front with Syria, Al-Jazeera reported. We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats, said Iranian vice president Mohammad Reza Aref. He said Tehran would draw on its more than two decades of experience in dealing with U.S. sanctions to aid Damascus.
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