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The Murdered Fathers Club

Washington's allies in Beirut are now bowing to Damascus.

9:00 PM, Dec 19, 2009 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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On Saturday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri traveled to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian president Bashar Asad, the man widely believed to have ordered the assassination of his father, former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. The 2005 murder sparked the Cedar Revolution, a mass protest movement that resulted in the end of the thirty-year Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, and swept the pro-West March 14th coalition to power. Although March 14 again triumphed over the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizballah-led opposition in elections this past June, Washington's allies in Beirut are now facing a crisis. Hariri's trip to Damascus represents the return of Syrian influence to Lebanon, and perhaps, the end of the Cedar Revolution.

Six months ago, March 14 appeared to be in good shape. The underdog coalition had defeated Hizballah at the polls, and seemed well positioned to form a government. But the process dragged out for months as the opposition held out for preponderant influence in the cabinet. In the end, facing the specter of Hizballah violence, Hariri ultimately succumbed to pressure and acceded to opposition demands.

The composition of the cabinet--in which Hizballah wields veto power over government initiatives--was a political defeat for Hariri. Worse, facing continued pressure from Hizballah and its allies, Hariri was compelled to make an equally loathsome concession on the Ministerial Statement, the policy guidance for his incoming administration. In contravention to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701--which stipulates the "disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon"--Hariri was forced to accept compromise language legitimating Hizballah's weapons.

Even more damaging, during the process of forming the government, Hariri was forced to accept the condition that he would travel to Damascus to meet Asad.

Pilgrimage to Damascus has long been a prerequisite for incoming senior Lebanese officials. During Syria's thirty-year occupation of Lebanon, Lebanese politicians--typically appointed by the Asad regime--would travel to Damascus to receive orders and to demonstrate fealty. More recently, since 2005 and the end of the Syrian occupation, the optics of a visit symbolically serve to reaffirm the power dynamic between Damascus and Beirut.

Years ago, it would have been unimaginable that Saad Hariri would meet with Bashar Asad. In 2005, Saad's father, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut, and Syria--and its ally Hizballah according to Der Spiegel--remains the leading suspect in the case. Moreover, during an interview two years after his father's murder, Hariri claimed Damascus was responsible for the assassination of six parliamentarians in his March 14 bloc. "We all know that the Syrian regime is doing this," he said. "Action must be taken against Syria, like isolation, to make the Syrians understand that killing members of [Lebanon's] Parliament will have consequences for them."

A United Nations-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established in 2005 to prosecute Rafiq Hariri's assassins, and is currently preparing indictments. Given the sensitivities involved, it's obvious that if he had his way, Hariri would wait for indictments to be issued prior to visiting Damascus. Hariri has little inclination to meet with Asad, the man presumed to have ordered the killing of his father.

He is going under duress. In October, Hariri's chief Arab backer, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, travelled to Syria--the first such meeting in Damascus since 2005--and reportedly reached an agreement with President Asad to allow the formation of a Lebanese Government. Although Syria and its Lebanese allies had nearly all their cabinet demands met--as Syrian Ambassador to Washingon Imad Moustapha recently quipped, "It is exactly the sort of government we think should rule Lebanon"--the Asad regime wanted one additional concession: a Hariri visit to Damascus. As a peace offering, Saudi Arabia acceded.

But Hariri isn't the only March 14 politician slated to make the pilgrimage. Hariri will be followed closely by Walid Jumblatt, the enigmatic Druze leader, whose anti-Syrian views routinely made headlines from 2005-2008. During a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East policy in 2007, for example, Jumblatt warned U.S. policymakers as to the nature of the Asad regime. "Let nobody be fooled that the [Syrian] killing machine will stop," he said. Given the absence of effective sanctions against the regime, Jumblatt offered his own recommendation as to an effective course of action, opining, "If you could send some car bombs to Damascus, why not?"