The car-bombing assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on Monday has puzzled many informed observers of Middle East affairs. All signs point to Syrian involvement, but this raises an interesting question: Why would Syrian President Bashar Assad order (or authorize) the assassination of such a widely respected international figure if he knew that Syria would almost certainly be blamed? Liberal British and American commentators point to this seeming contradiction when they suggest that the U.S. government rushed to judgment in all but accusing Syria of responsibility following the bombing.
Actually, it's a trick question -- similar reasoning can be used to question why other likely suspects would kill the billionaire tycoon-turned politician. Since assassinating Hariri was so sure to bring the wrath of the West down upon Assad, for example, it's almost inconceivable that Palestinian Islamists in Lebanon would do it -- as the Lebanese government is now claiming: Surely, the perpetrators would be hunted down and killed, likely following torture. Following this reasoning to its natural end rules out everyone but Damascus: Of all the possible culprits, only Syria didn't have to worry about incurring the deadly wrath of Syria.
The particulars of the assassination further attest to Syrian complicity. The intelligence needed to confound Hariri's security team (considered to be the best money could buy) would be well beyond the capacity of anyone who isn't well connected to Lebanon's security establishment. Judging from the sheer magnitude of the explosion and make of the vehicle, one can conclude that the car carrying the explosives would have been weighted down on its axles nearly to the point of being undriveable. In other words, the car had "car bomb" painted all over it. Lebanese police patrols are trained to recognize such tell-tale signs. No one in their right mind would try to smuggle such a contraption into one of the most secure areas of downtown Beirut without high-level clearance.
Furthermore, the massive size of the bomb was designed to leave absolutely no chance whatsoever that Hariri would survive the blast. If a renegade Palestinian group (or Israel) wanted to carry out a "false flag" car bomb attack on Hariri designed to provoke a confrontation between Syria and the West, they would have used a lighter, less conspicuous bomb -- both for practical reasons and because the prospect of Hariri surviving the blast would be less of a concern.
In fact, if the intent had been to harm Syria, leaving him alive would have been ideal. Since the prospect of a vengeful Hariri surviving the blast would have been a nightmare scenario only for the Syrians, the perpetrators' concern with absolute certainty is a dead giveaway.
To return to the initial question, what made the removal of Hariri so critically important to Syria that it was willing to incur the wrath of the West? The reasons aren't difficult to discern. Since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling on all foreign forces to leave Lebanon, members of Lebanon's once-quiescent political elite, led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, have defected in droves to a new multi-sectarian opposition front known as the Bristol Gathering. Hariri, the richest and most powerful politician in Lebanon (his allies control nearly a third of the seats in parliament), had been sitting on the fence until recently, negotiating with both sides. A few weeks before his death, Hariri crossed the Rubicon by sending an official representative to a meeting of the Bristol Gathering. Assad was faced with the prospect of a strong united opposition front, bolstered by Hariri's deep pockets, sweeping parliamentary elections in May.
Damascus has long relied on assassinations to deter Lebanese elites from open defiance. Since the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon in 1976, dozens of prominent politicians, journalists, clerics and other public figures have been murdered shortly after they took concrete actions that undermined Syrian interests in Lebanon. Former minister for economy and trade Marwan Hamadeh, who was wounded by a car bomb last October just weeks after resigning in protest over Syria's unconstitutional extension of President Emile Lahoud's term in office, is a rare survivor of this brutally efficient Syrian practice. In the aftermath of this assassination attempt, some of Syria's less discrete allies hinted more were on the way. The head of the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath Party, Assem Qanso, publicly warned Jumblatt in early February: "You are not out of reach of our militants."
Assad must of have been keenly aware that Hariri's murder would outrage the international community. Following the Hamadeh assassination attempt, American and UN officials repeatedly warned Syria to refrain from further killings. During his visit to Damascus in January, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly told Assad that "the security of Lebanese opposition leaders is a red line." Just hours before Hariri's assassination, a Lebanese newspaper quoted UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen as warning that Syrian involvement in political assassinations would bring about "a total, final and irrevocable divorce with the international community."
Assad likely concluded that a confrontation with the United States and France had already become inevitable -- not only had they co-sponsored Resolution 1559, but both had begun publicly denouncing the Syrian military presence at every opportunity (most recently during Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe) and warning of "additional measures" to bring about a Syrian withdrawal. The murder of Hariri was a preemptive act of desperation, designed to deter Lebanon from openly siding with the West in the battle to come. Whether it will work depends greatly on how forcefully the United States and Europe react to this brutal murder.