TOPICS > Politics

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri Killed in Car Bombing

February 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: For some analysis here are Theodore Kattouf, a retired State Department official who recently served as ambassador to Syria during the first two years of the Bush administration.

And Murhaf Jouejati, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, an adjunct professor of international relations in the Middle East at George Washington University. He was born and raised in Syria and is now a U.S. citizen.

Mr. Ambassador, how do you read the possibilities of Syria being behind this assassination?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, it’s understandable that people would suspect Syria. Hariri was the former prime minister, very charismatic, very powerful figure who increasingly was moving into the opposition camp.

JIM LEHRER: Opposition to Syria?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Opposition to Syria, and opposition to President Lahud and supporters of Syria and Lebanon.

And Syria has been suspected before of carrying out political assassinations in Lebanon, so it’s very understandable why a lot of opposition figures and people around the world think Syria is a suspect. That doesn’t mean it did it.

JIM LEHRER: Right. What would Syria gain from killing Mr. Hariri?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: This is the million dollar question, because to my mind Syria has absolutely no interest in assassinating Mr. Hariri.

The assassination of the late Rafik Hariri means that the opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon is going to rally and is going to be even more vocal in its opposition to the Syrian presence.

And that also means, which we are seeing now, increasing pressure upon Syria.

So I think we should not jump to conclusion too quickly. We should at least let an investigation take its course before pointing blame.

JIM LEHRER: I know it’s an unfair question, because nobody knows, but what is the alternative to Syria, if Syria didn’t do it, then who would have something to gain by this?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: I have heard all sorts of different scenarios. One was Iran, in order to divert attention from the squabbles it is having with Washington now.

One is Israel, in order precisely to weaken Syria and Lebanon so that Syria cannot or can no longer use Hezbollah as an instrument of its power. And in order to accelerate U.S. pressures upon Syria.

So again, I don’t know who did it and I don’t think that many analysts who say they do know either who did it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, you can hear just about anything you want to hear if you listen long enough?

THEODORE KATTOUF: You can hear almost any conspiracy theory you want in the Middle East. I for one would rule out Israel. I don’t think the Israelis, they, their relations with the U.S. and such; this is not an act of Israel.

But I do think, I agree that Iran, I think Hezbollah, the pro Iranian militia group in south Lebanon and sometimes in the past had threatened Hariri.

The Syrian press had become more vocal about Hariri of late in a very negative fashion.

But one thing I would point out to our viewers and that is that a lot of people suspected Syria of bringing down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in the late 1980s.

And that was the assumption all over this town, and it proved to be Libya in the end, not Syria. That doesn’t exculpate Syria but it…

JIM LEHRER: I got you. The United Nations has called for an immediate and complete investigation of this — this Security Council today.

Is that likely to happen, is that likely to bear fruit, what do you think of that?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Well, look, Lebanon is a sovereign state and so to say there must be an international investigation is really a slap across the face of the Lebanese state. I hope there is an international investigation so that we can get down to the bottom of this.

But again I think the international community should now be at least offering assistance to the Lebanese authorities in their investigation, rather than simply say “we do not trust you, we the international community are going to investigate this.”

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, what’s the message of the U.S. decision to pull the – our ambassador out of there, not pull him out, but to ask her to come home for consultation, what’s the message?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, the message is that there’s a whole range of Syrian behaviors that the U.S. Administration has told Syria are unacceptable to this country and that Syria needs to change its behavior.

And of course Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian arena and Syria’s support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Damascus are all part of that panoply of issues.

I think that Secretary Rice stated the case succinctly when she said they claim to be there for security and stability. If that’s the case, in effect, they’ve failed.

JIM LEHRER: How do you think Syria is going to read all of this — not only in the message of the U. N. and the message from the United States, but the message on their own streets today?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: I think Syria has come to the understanding that no matter what Syria does the U.S. is not going to be pleased.

The U.S. is out to impose a Pax Americana on the Middle East, an American order, and it is now taking care of those who challenge the American order. So when Syria cooperates, for example, with the CIA in the war against al-Qaida, Syria gets very little in return, by way of thanks.

When Syria erects a wall over 300 miles with the border of Iraq in order to sop the infiltration of Jihadists into Iraq, there is very little thanks from the U.S. Administration.

When the Syrian president on and on again proposes to resume peace talks with Israel, there is very little thanks in the United States.

So in the end the Syrians I think are beginning to realize that no matter what they do, they are in the crosshairs of Washington.

JIM LEHRER: But, what are the new things, there’s been an assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, the United Nations has called for this and everybody has called for this and that and there were demonstrations on the streets today.

That was my question. How is Syria likely to respond to this situation?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: You know, Syria has been, has already implemented a series, six redeployments from Lebanon, and I think the Syrian intention in the end is to withdraw fully from Lebanon.

But this cannot be divorced from an overall settlement in the Middle East. I do not believe that Syria could possibly withdraw from Lebanon as long as there is an Israeli occupation in other areas of the Middle East. So again it cannot be divorced from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree or how do you, why, you know Syria, you know how Syria is likely to handle this. You were there — how do you think it’s going to handle this?

THEODORE KATTOUF: I know Syria, I was there, and often what’s a mystery is how decisions get made or don’t get made.

I for instance would fine it very hard to believe that President Musharraf Assad — who I’ve met who I’ve met with on a number of occasions — would sanction the killing of Rafik Hariri.

Then that raises the question, could there be other elements not fully under his control that might have felt the need to carry this out in order to keep their grip on Lebanon?

Syria generally miscalculates in a way of being too heavy handed, as it was last fall when it forced the extension of President Lahud’s term for an additional three years in Lebanon.

JIM LEHRER: He’s a pro-Syrian who is now the president?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Yes, he’s president of Lebanon, former head of the armed forces – was respected as a man who is not corrupt, et cetera, but his reputation has been tarnished by being too faithful to his Syrian allies and by allowing this extension to occur.

I think the Syrians are going to realize pretty quickly now that they’re in real trouble here. And I wish I could predict for you, Jim, what they’d do, but I really am baffled how they’re going to get out of this one.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the troop issue itself, what is it, 14,000, is that it, about 14,000 Syrian troops remain in Lebanon?


JIM LEHRER: Is this likely to make them want to get them out or make them want to keep them in there just to show they can’t be pushed around?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Generally the Syrians don’t like to look weak under pressure, and so generally…

JIM LEHRER: Generally –

THEODORE KATTOUF: Generally they won’t make the concession when they’re under pressure. They’ll wait until things quiet down, die down, and then they’ll give ground by withdrawing troops, et cetera.

But many Lebanese make the point that it’s not the fourteen thousand troops, but the four or five thousand intelligence forces in Lebanon who work closely with Lebanese military intelligence where Syria has a lot of allies that are really the big problem in terms of interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

JIM LEHRER: Is it possible, is there a worse case scenario here that this thing could somehow spin out of control, bad enough as it is, a man has been killed, there are all kinds of things happening. Could it get worse?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: I think so, unfortunately. This was no ordinary man; this was no ordinary Lebanese politician.

This was a man of a major stature, of a regional and international stature. This was a man who was becoming rapidly a rallying point for the opposition. This was a man who had very significant contributions to the reconstruction of Lebanon whether in its infrastructure or in its institutions.

And so I have been listening very closely to Lebanese TV and the rhetoric that I hear from either side whether opponents of Syria or loyalists to Syria, I hear a much more forceful rhetoric and at times they use violent terms. So I fear, I fear that Lebanon is, yes.

JIM LEHRER: You share that fear, it could get bad?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Sure, I share the fear that it could get bad. This bomb occurred in the heart of rebuilt Beirut in the hotel district — a district that was ravaged very early on in the civil war.

And the message is “if we can set off a bomb in the middle of Beirut and kill an international figure of Hariri’s stature, do you really think we’re afraid to deal with you?”

And this is going to raise tensions all throughout Lebanon and Syria does have its supporters in Lebanon. And the Christian presence and influence in Lebanon is dwindling rapidly.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Thank you, Mr. Lehrer.