The nail in the coffin for Syria’s rule in Lebanon came in February 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in an assassination attempt in Beirut. The assassination of post-war Lebanon’s most prominent politician and businessman sparked such strong protests against Syria locally and internationally that Bashar al-Asad was forced to withdraw his forces.
The United States and France have since taken the lead in an international demand to uncover and punish those responsible for the murder of Hariri. A UN-led commission of inquiry led by Detlev Mehlis concluded in October 2005 that “the tracks led to Syria”. A leaked and unofficial version of the Mehlis report even mentioned people in Bashar al-Asad’s closest circle as possible culprits for the assassination.
5: Embassy burning
According to healthinclude, the attacks on the Embassy of Denmark and Norway in Damascus in February 2006 must be seen in the light of Syria’s deteriorating international relations. The Syrian regime was pushed into a corner and used the caricature fight as a welcome diversionary maneuver . By giving the world an insight into the “unruly forces” that may take over, the regime sent a warning about the consequences of exerting too much pressure on Syria. Another useful effect of the caricature case was to build popular support behind the regime’s confrontation with the West. The international pressure on Syria as a result of the Hariri case was hooked on “a malicious Christian campaign against the Prophet Muhammad” to paint a picture of the regime as the protector of the nation and Islam.
6: Storm clouds in sight
The setbacks in the international arena have put Syria in a vulnerable position. In the future, regional political developments will be decisive for the regime’s security. A first storm is brewing in the west where the last word in the Hariri case has still not been said. In December 2005, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1644, which calls for the establishment of an international / Lebanese court to prosecute those responsible for the killings. The court has become a hot potato in Lebanese politics because indictments against Hariri’s killers are a popular demand in the Sunni Muslim and to some extent also the Christian population, while Shia Muslim politicians are skeptical of the way the court has been adopted.
In Damascus, the concern is that the United States will use legally legitimate accusations against Syria as a lever in its fight against the regime. Should the court hold prominent Syrians responsible for Hariri’s assassination, the United States could demand punishment or extradition and impose strict measures against the country if Bashar al-Asad refuses. To stagnate the great powers, Syria has played the crisis maximization card in Lebanon. By demonstrating its ability to create political instability in Lebanon, the regime is sending a warning not to override Syria’s interests. In other words, Damascus plays a very loud game – which can have unforeseen consequences.
Another storm has set in in the east where the Iraqi civil war is raging. Bashar al-Asad initially breathed a sigh of relief when the United States got stuck in Iraq and had to abandon the idea of ”democratic invasions” – which, according to Saddam Hussein, could have affected the Ba’athist regime in Syria.
However, the long-term effects of living with a collapsed neighboring state can be just as dangerous. Large flows of refugees have already poured in across Syria’s borders. They upset the fragile demographic balance in the country and risk ending up as a new economic underclass. As the experience of Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan has shown, refugee flows can have a destabilizing effect on the country they come to. In the long run, the danger of an “infectious effect” from the civil war in Iraq will also be present. Should the United States withdraw and leave the Iraqis to their own devices, the scale of sectarian violence is likely to increase and possibly lead neighboring countries to intervene.
On top of the crises in Iraq and Lebanon, the danger of armed clashes between the United States / Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program also threatens. The United States and Israel are concerned about Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East as a result of the collapse of Iraq and Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon. Following the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, they have identified an “axis” consisting of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas as their biggest security risk. The United States and Israel do not rule out military attacks on nuclear facilities in Iran to – as they say – disarm their enemy. In the event of such an attack, Syria risks being drawn into subsequent hostilities through Hezbollah and its military alliance with Iran.
So far, Bashar al-Asad is safe in power in Syria. He has succeeded in taking over as the new ruler of the Baath regime and controlling internal opposition. However, events beyond the president’s reach may destabilize Syria. Developments in Iran and Lebanon could drag Syria into a major war. Should that happen, the danger of an Iraq-like collapse will be present. The regime’s problem of legitimacy – and Syria’s religious composition – offers ample potential for future crisis.