Killing widens Lebanon-Syria rift

Holding a school book in one hand and a Syrian flag in the other, 16-year-old Alaa Tiryaqi marched with tens of thousands of protesters in central Damascus to denounce a UN report implicating top Syrian security officials in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

The UN report blames Syrian security agencies for the killing
The UN report blames Syrian security agencies for the killing

“I don’t believe anything in this report,” said Tiryaqi about the 53-page document made public last Friday. “It is full of false information and has only one goal: Accusing Syria of being behind Hariri’s assassination.”

UN investigator Detlev Mehlis said in the report that the 14 February assassination could not have been carried out without the knowledge of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services.

His report implicated several senior Syrian officials, including the head of Syrian military intelligence, General Assef Shawkat, who is also President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law. 

UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan has said that the findings of the UN inquiry are not final and announced an extension to the international investigation team’s mandate for another two months.

Ties deteriorate

Tiryaqi may be more than just voicing her opposition to the UN report. Since the assassination of al-Hariri, Syrian-Lebanese relations have deteriorated to a point where there is open suspicion and distrust not just between the two governments but the people as well.

Most Syrians deny their countrywas forcibly occupying Lebanon

Most Syrians deny their country
was forcibly occupying Lebanon

In Lebanon, anti-Syrian sentiment peaked following the assassination.

After al-Hariri’s killing, the UN, US and France reiterated UN resolution 1559 calling on all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.

Syrian troops withdrew from the country last April.

“Syria is different from Iraq,” said Reem Malik, a media student from Damascus. “Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990 and that was clear occupation; but Syrian military bases in Lebanon were protecting the Lebanese,” she said about Syria’s military presence in the country that lasted for almost three decades.

Like many in Syria, Malik did not acknowledge Syria’s political and military domination over its smaller neighbouring country, attributing the wrongdoings committed in Lebanon to Syrian individuals. Nevertheless, many Lebanese saw Syrian complicity in the assassination.

Political hegemony

Top Syrian officials had always had the final say on who should be the president, prime minister and house speaker in Lebanon; they had to name or at least approve of cabinet ministers. Former Syrian intelligence chiefs in the country had engineered parliamentary electoral laws that favour their Lebanese allies.

Syrian officials like Kenaan (R) had final say in Lebanese politics

Syrian officials like Kenaan (R)
had final say in Lebanese politics

Al-Hariri himself was once a staunch ally of Syria and enjoyed close relations with the late Syrian interior minister Ghazi Kanaan, who committed suicide earlier this month.

Kanaan, who was the top intelligence chief in Lebanon for almost two decades, is said to have designed the electoral law of 2000 that ensured a landslide victory for al-Hariri and his entire list of candidates in Beirut.

Previously unknown figures replaced traditional Beirut family faces, such as Tamam Salam and long-time politicians such as former prime minister Salim al-Hoss.

Malik, the media student from Damascus, insisted that only “some Syrian officials made mistakes in Lebanon; they have to be held accountable as individuals, because they do not represent the entire regime”.

But such interference in Lebanese affairs upset many Lebanese, mainly Christians, who felt that Syria was favouring its Muslim allies. Sunni Muslims became openly outspoken against Syria following the killing of their leader, al-Hariri.

Growing tension between Beirut and Damascus have gone beyond political and economic relations and, in some cases, affected social ties.

Social rift
Lina Khalil, a laboratory student, whose mother is Lebanese, said she broke up her engagement with her Lebanese cousin after she was repeatedly harassed for being a Syrian during a one-month visit to Beirut this summer.

People in Beirut kept telling her mother-in-law why she had chosen a Syrian bride for her son. “Aren’t there any Lebanese women left?” they would ask, according to Khalil. Even her fiancé had frequently made anti-Syrian comments in front of her.

A Syrian employee in Lebanon, who preferred to stay anonymous, said some of her colleagues would not even salute her in the morning for quite a while after al-Hariri’s assassination.

“It was as if I was the one who killed him,” she said.

Syrians harassed

“It is my wish to slit the throat of a Syrian. The Syrians messed up our country. I just wish I can kill one”

An unnamed Lebanese about a Syrian coffee-maker

In April, Amnesty International received a response from Lebanese General Security regarding its request for information related to attacks, including killings, on Syrians since 14 February.

Officially recorded attacks included 31 separate incidents of Syrian workers’ temporary housing being burnt between 27 February and 23 March; 43 separate physical attacks on Syrian workers with stones, sticks, guns and grenades and at times with associated robbery – between 1 March and 6 April; two Syrian men abducted and one Syrian woman raped; a number of Syrian workers’ vehicles being burnt or attacked; and 17 cases of threats against individuals to force them to leave the country.

This reporter witnessed the harassment of a Syrian coffee-maker who was told by a customer: “It is my wish to slit the throat of a Syrian. The Syrians messed up our country. I just wish I can kill one.”

Asked how such comments make him feel, the Syrian worker said in a hushed voice: “Each person will die one day. And only God knows how.”

Such incidents have prompted Lebanon’s anti-Syrian politicians, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to stress on different occasions that political differences should not lead to racist actions.

Media incitement?  

Many in Damascus blamed the Lebanese media for fuelling resentment against Syria. Al-Hariri-owned Future TV and al-Mustaqbal newspaper have been campaigning for the Mehlis report and referring to it as “the truth”.

Syrians say Lebanese media fuels resentment against their country 

Syrians say Lebanese media fuels 
resentment against their country 

“The Lebanese were behind everything,” said a man waiting outside a telephone booth in al-Khija market in Damascus. “They kept on campaigning against Syria until Mehlis was pressurised to politicise his report,” said the man, who preferred to stay anonymous.

While many Syrians have rejected the Mehlis report, the Lebanese are celebrating the report and are already discussing where the perpetrators of those who killed their former prime minister should be tried and what kind of punishment they should receive.

Walid Bayram, a 28-year-old businessman, said the perpetrators should stand trial before an international court, because the Lebanese judiciary continued to be crippled by politics.

“We want every single one of those involved in Hariri’s assassination to be brought to justice. And since each politician here keeps a file that can indict his rivals, blackmail could be used and justice might be obstructed,” said Bayram, who was attending a celebration near al-Hariri’s grave in central Beirut hours after the release of the Mehlis report.

Shadi Ala al-Din, a teacher and master’s student, agreed, but said he was against handing down death sentences. “We want justice, not revenge,” he said.

But Fadi Dahrouj, a car dealer who came to Beirut from the northern city of Tripoli to express his support for the Mehlis report, said he would like to see the murderers of al-Hariri executed.

“Hariri is not just another man. He has done a lot for Lebanon and those who killed him should receive the harshest punishment: Death.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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