Murder Inc. in Syria

The western world took these brutal Syrian actions in its stride, and Hafez Assad became a much admired, and even respected world leader.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 27, 2005.)

The report by UN investigator Detlev Mehlis, which examined the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, and puts the blame squarely on senior Syrian officials, should have come as no surprise to Israelis acquainted with the many years of Syrian misrule in Lebanon. A cardinal tool in Syrian domination of its neighbor-state, Lebanon, was the assassination of Lebanese, especially those in positions of leadership found to be inconvenient by the rulers in Damascus.

If you wanted to stay alive in Lebanon, you had to bend yourself to the Syrian will. Even the current leader of the Druze community in the country, Walid Jumblatt, learned this lesson when the Syrians murdered his father Kamal Jumblatt. For years thereafter, he was a docile ally of the Syrians.

Until Hariri’s assassination, the most outrageous Syrian crime was the murder of Bashir Gemayel, the president-elect of Lebanon, on September 14, 1982, eight days before his scheduled inauguration. His brother, Amin Gemayel, who became president after the assassination, immediately understood the message from Damascus and scuttled the treaty with Israel that had been negotiated over many months, signed with the assistance of U.S. secretary of state George Shultz and ratified by the Lebanese parliament.

According to the treaty, Israeli forces were to leave southern Lebanon and relations between Israel and Lebanon were to be normalized.

That is how Hafez Assad, the father of the current dictator of Syria, set the stage for another 23 years of Syrian rule in Lebanon and, utilizing the Hezbollah Shia terrorist organization, opened a front on Israel’s northern border that took a heavy toll in Israeli lives over the years. The western world took these brutal Syrian actions in its stride, and Hafez Assad became a much admired, and even respected world leader.

Bashar Assad saw no reason why he should not follow his father’s example and get rid of the recalcitrant Lebanese leader, Rafik Hariri, who did not support changes to the Lebanese constitution to permit a third term for the Syrian stooge, Emile Lahoud, as president of Lebanon.

He obviously had not been following U.S. policies very closely, and failed to realize that President George W. Bush had changed the rules. Rule by assassination was no longer acceptable.

One can only wonder in retrospect, how and why did Assad got away with murder all these years, all the while hosting the headquarters of Palestinian terrorist organizations in Damascus and encouraging Hezbollah’s activities against Israel.

He was treated with great deference by the world’s leaders; Syria was elected to the UN Security Council. U.S. president Clinton went out of his way to court Assad. In January 1994, he met with Assad in Geneva, nine months later he visited him in Damascus, and in 2000 he again had a tete-a-tete with him in Geneva.

Israel, although directly harmed by Syria’s actions in Lebanon, tried to outdo president Clinton. Successive Israeli prime ministers have attempted to turn the Golan Heights over to Assad, prepared to uproot 18,000 Israelis from their homes and turn the 15,000 Druze inhabitants of the Golan Heights over to the criminal regime in Syria.

Acceptance of continued Syrian domination of Lebanon was considered part of the bargain.

Ehud Barak outdid himself in singing the praises of Hafez Assad, calling him a wise and courageous leader, and arranged for a meeting with Farouk Shara, Syria’s foreign minister, in Shepherdstown, Virginia under Clinton’s tutelage, to discuss withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This is the very same Shara who has been accused in the UN report of attempting to subvert the UN inquiry into the murder of Hariri.

The adulation showered on another Arab tyrant, Yasser Arafat, is part and parcel of the same syndrome. We don’t care how many people they have murdered or how many terrorist atrocities they have committed; we are only too happy to shake their blood-stained hands and help them perpetuate their regimes and oppress their people, usher them into the Oval Office and recommend them for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hopefully those days are over. This time Bashar Assad has overplayed his hand. The world is not prepared to condone rule by assassination, just as it is not prepared to accept terrorism. Maybe this time Lebanon will be set free and Hezbollah will be disarmed. Maybe a step will be taken to bring peace between Israel and Lebanon closer.

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