The 2003 meeting that set the stage for Hariri’s assassination

Rafik Hariri was summoned to Damascus in December 2003. Bashar al-Assad was purposely rude and crude with Hariri.
Thursday 06/08/2020
A file picture shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting with Rafik al-Hariri in Damascus, in  June 2000. (REUTERS)
A file picture shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting with Rafik al-Hariri in Damascus, in June 2000. (REUTERS)

The latest blast in Beirut which turned it into a disaster-stricken city has driven the last nail in the coffin of the poor city that Rafik Hariri had tried to revive and, in fact,succeeded in doing so after the reconstruction of its city centre.

Hariri’s success was short-lived though and his assassination in 2005 killed the concept of Beirut, and practically eliminated Lebanon altogether.

Last Tuesday’s blast was but the final touch in a systematic process that destroyed the city, originating from the same spot that was one of the reasons for its prosperity, namely its port.

Rafik Hariri’s goal was to restore Beirut to its former glory, that is to say, a Lebanese-Arab-European-international city open to everything civilized in the world. Beirut has resisted for a long time multiple attempts at its demise until the knockout of August 4, 2020.

Everybody knows who stands behind Beirut’s demise. This will be confirmed by the expected International Tribunal for Lebanon’s verdict, later this month, in the case of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and his companions. The court will reveal the names of the persons who had perpetrated the crime and who will turn out to be members of Lebanese Hezbollah, which is nothing less than a brigade in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Syrian President Bashar Assad meets with Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, at Tishrin presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, in December 2009. (AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad meets with Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, at Tishrin presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, in December 2009. (AP)

Some even say that the The Hague court might even go further and name those who directed the group that carried out the bombing of Rafik Hariri’s convoy on February 14, 2005, in a place not far from the location of the latest blast that killed Beirut.

It is no longer a secret who assassinated Hariri, nor who ordered it, and why it is always possible to place the crime within a broader context that goes beyond Lebanon. But what seems necessary to highlight is the prelude to Rafik Hariri’s assassination, since the latter was allowed to move and operate freely only between 1992 and 1998.

In 1992, Rafik Hariri formed his first government and started in practice and in earnest the enormous tasks of reconstructing Beirut and Lebanon and of fixing the value of the Lebanese Lira. At that time, the Arabs started coming back to Lebanon and Lebanon went back to the Arab fold. Even the Lebanese who were driven out by Michel Aoun in 1988, 1989 and 1990 started coming back home.

In 1998, however, and with the election of Emile Lahoud as President of the Republic, Syria’s cold war on Rafik Hariri picked up pace. In 1998, Bashar al-Assad became Syria’s strong man in light of his father’s illness.

Bashar simply disliked Hariri. He was influenced to a large extent by Hezbollah’s and other parties’ hostility towardsthe man, a hostility that was mainly due to the party’s association with Iran’s expansionist project. At its essence, the project aimed at killing Lebanon’s Arab and international identities.

From Baabda Palace, Emile Lahoud launched a tacit war on Rafik Hariri, who was successful at the time in forming a popular base for his government on the one hand, and in forging for himself the reputation of a patriotic leader who crosses and supersedes sectarian limitations, on the other hand.

By mid-2003, and following the fall of Baghdad and the US conditions conveyed to Bashar al-Assad by none other than the US Secretary of State Colin Powell himself, the Syrian regime moved to the stage of a direct war against Rafik Hariri.

The Syrian regime had an obsession called Rafik Hariri. The latter explicitly opposed extending Emile Lahoud’s term, supposed to end in 2004, and Bashar al-Assad started to feel that Lebanon had begun slipping through his fingers, despite Hariri’s repeated assurances to the contrary.

A few months before the issuance of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which among other things called for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon and for the dissolution of the Hezbollahmilitia, just like all of the other Lebanese militias that had accepted to surrendered their weapons to the Lebanese state or sent them outside Lebanon, an important meeting took place between Bashar Al-Assad and Rafik Hariri.

Rafik Hariri was summoned to Damascus in December 2003. He met with Assad and three Syrian officers: Ghazi Kanaan, who was in charge of Lebanon before his replacement; Rostom Ghazaleh who replaced him, and Muhammad Khalouf, who was in charge of the Syrian observers in Lebanon.

Bashar al-Assad was purposely rude and crude with Hariri. He even called him a “traitor”. He asked him: “How many days a week do you work against me and how many do you work with me?” And just like that, he ordered him to sell his shares (about 36%) in the Al-Nahar newspaper, leave the file of Al-Madina Bank alone, as heavy suspicions of money laundering weighed heavily on this bank because of its links to Maher al-Assad and his friends, and to stop objecting to extending Emile Lahoud’s term as president.

Hariri later told some of his friends that Bashar had told him verbatim “Extending Emile Lahoud’s term is a card in my hand; do you want to burn this card? In other words, burn my fingers?”

Rafik Hariri was so angry that his blood pressure shot up and he started bleeding from the nose. He returned to Beirut heartbroken. He realised that day that his relationship with the Syrian regime was permanently broken and that Bashar al-Assad was not Hafez al-Assad.

It was just a matter of time for conditions to deteriorate and reach the stage of deciding to get rid of Rafik Hariri, especially after Iran realised that the Americans handed it Iraq on a silver platter and that it was unfettered to do whatever it wanted in the region.

Bashar al-Assad was in the end only a front for the real crime of killing Lebanon. His hatred for Rafik Hariri and for Lebanon, which he used to describe as a “fragile” country, led him to make the mistake that drove him out of Lebanon.

Barring last minute hindrances, the International Tribunal will pronounce its verdict, fifteen and a half years after Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

However, the question of why Bashar al-Assad had committed the mistake that cost Syria and Lebanon dearly will remain unanswered. It cost both countries a lot to the point of putting their fate at stake. What a waste. It reminds one of a comment made by Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s interior minister, upon hearing about the execution of a dissident who had taken refuge in Germany instead of interrogating him for specific information.

Fouché said: “What happened was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” What a waste for poor Syria and Lebanon.