How Lebanon Was Lost

Last month, Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon and the son of Rafik Hariri, the beloved former prime minister who was murdered five years ago in a massive car-bomb explosion, publicly recanted his allegation that high-level Syrian officials had ordered the killing. "During a period of time we accused Syria of being behind the assassination," he said in a newspaper interview. "This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended." Hariri has not changed his mind, of course; rather, he has recognized his own helplessness.

Pity poor Lebanon. That charming and tormented mix of beachfront property and guerrilla warfare has been the playground of rival states and militias and gangs since a war of all against all broke out in 1975. Much of it, perhaps, was the fault of the Lebanese themselves; read Fouad Ajami's masterful and terribly sad The Dream Palace of the Arabs on the subject.

But right now, Lebanon, or at least the democratic forces in Lebanon, are being held hostage. And no one, including the United States, is going to come to its rescue.

The situation is incredibly complicated, as it always is in Lebanon. A special tribunal, impaneled by order of the U.N. Security Council, has been investigating Hariri's murder and is likely to hand up indictments soon. The tribunal was once expected to finger high-level Syrian officials, but it is now widely believed that the initial round of indictments will be lodged against Hezbollah, which for years has acted as an agent for Syria's interests in Lebanon. The next round will probably target Syria directly, though Syria has left it to Hezbollah to make dire threats over the prospects of indictments.

The triggering event for Hariri's sad surrender was the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Syria, with whom it had been on bitter terms since the Rafik Hariri murder. The Saudis wanted to enlist Syria in the effort to shape a new government in Baghdad and frustrate Iran's ambition of installing a compliant, Shiite-controlled regime. So King Abdullah paid a high-profile visit to Damascus in late August. Hariri, meanwhile, had long depended on the Saudis for support.

James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on October 8th, 2010.

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  • shirin

    what a great article,and how sad. Poor little lebanon! the wicked to what they can and the weak waht they must, how true!

    October 9, 2010