Our world was rocked yesterday; yes, while we were busy not noticing.
The story began Monday with a Valentine’s Day massacre in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. Former (and aspiring future) Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was riding in the center of his motorcade when a massive bomb exploded, killing him and 14 others, injuring 135. Mr. Hariri, despite having no current official status, could afford the security of motorcades because he was a billionaire construction magnate who is given credit for rebuilding his country’s infrastructure after decades of civil war.
He had resigned as Prime Minister last autumn after a fairly public wrangle with Syria over its undue influence in the ostensibly sovereign affairs of Lebanon. It seems a safe presumption that Monday’s assassination was the fallout of this fall falling-out. Other than Syria or a proxy supplied with materiel and intelligence by Syria, there is no group operating in Lebanon with this sort of firepower, infrastructure, and penetration. Indeed many ordinary Lebanese citizens rioted in the streets after the killing, chanting anti-Syrian slogans. It’s a fair assumption that they know whereof they speak in blaming Syria for the blast.
Yesterday the United States, clearly acting on the theory that Syria was guilty of this atrocity, sent an official diplomatic demarche to Syria in protest and recalled our Ambassador to Washington for consultation. This is the world-rocking step whereof we spoke. It needs to be appreciated properly; it was a major, major move that is sure to ramify for some time to come.
Let us jump back in time for a bit and set the stage. In 1982, Lebanon was a country that had been riven by factionalism and anarchy. The entire southern end adjacent to Israel was controlled by Yassir Arafat and the PLO, who had moved there after being expelled from Jordan by King Hussein in the Black September military cleanup of 1970. The PLO actually had a system of taxation in place, owning a piece of every single facet of economic activity. Other parts of the country were divided between Phalangist Christian and Druze control.
A presidential election had been called for September 14, and the favored candidate was the charismatic Phalangist, Bashir Gemayel. A few months before the election, Israel invaded Southern Lebanon, capturing the area and expelling the PLO. This was called Operation Peace In Galilee, designed to protect the communities in northern Israel that had been shelled nightly by the PLO from their Lebanon base. But Prime Minister Menachem Begin only agreed to let Defense Minister Ariel Sharon undertake this ambitious venture because he had a plan to get his troops back out in fairly short order.
Begin had made a secret deal with Bashir Gemayel in expectation of his being elected. The PLO would be routed, southern Lebanon would be stabilized and placed mostly under the temporary stewardship of Major Saad Haddad and his South Lebanon Army. Haddad, a Christian, would cooperate with Gemayel and before long the country of Lebanon would once again coalesce into a functioning independent entity at peace with Israel.
Bashir won the election and he entered his campaign headquarters to make his victory speech at the celebratory party that had been prepared. Somehow a massive bomb had been planted right in the heart of the festivities and Bashir was killed. I was sitting in Jerusalem that night, huddled over my radio, and the bitterness of the disappointment that characterized that moment will remain with me forever.
After that, all hope died. The Phalangists freaked out and massacred Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Major Haddad’s power shrank into a very narrow fiefdom, and he died of cancer not long afterward. Hezbollah built an effective base for terrorism against northern Israel in the area vacated by the PLO. And Menachem Begin, whose wife died soon after, lost his taste for public life, resigned as Prime Minister of Israel, and spent the last nine years of his life as a sort of hermit.
Into this vacuum leapt Syria. It helped negotiate an arrangement whereby Amin Gemayel, milquetoast brother of the dynamic Bashir, became the titular president, and operated as a stooge for Syria. The Marines were present in Beirut for a time as a stabilizing force, but when their barracks were blown up by a massive truck bomb in October 1983, killing nearly 300 Marines, President Reagan brought them home. Since then, Syria has functioned as the de facto suzerain of Lebanon, and the Lebanese government is an administrative rather than a determinative body.
None of this is what Israel or the United States originally wanted, but both have made uneasy peace with this reality for over two decades. Now the Bashir Gemayel scenario has been repeated, except this time the victim is Rafik Hariri, and this time the people of Lebanon and the United States are not accepting it passively. If indeed Syria is being challenged over its hegemony in Lebanon, the Mideast calculus can veer off into all sorts of unpredictable scenarios: we had best fasten our seatbelts.