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White House steps up the "war on terror" after Lebanon bombing
Will Syria be the next U.S. target?

By Lee Sustar | February 25, 2005 | Page 5

IT'S STILL far from clear who ordered the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. But under the guise of the "war on terror," the U.S. is seizing an opportunity.

Washington is working alongside Israel to squeeze Syria--the dominant power in Lebanon--plus curtail Iran's influence as well. If the bombing that killed Hariri raises the prospect of renewed civil war in Lebanon, it's most of all because of the U.S.-Israeli drive to consolidate their grip on the Middle East.

The U.S. rattled its sabers at Syria immediately after Washington's conquest of Iraq in 2003, blaming Syria for allowing "foreign fighters" to cross into Iraq to fight the occupation--and even claiming that it was hiding Saddam Hussein's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction."

In October 2003, Congress passed the "Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act," which called for a withdrawal of 15,000 Syrian troops who have been in Lebanon since the civil war of the 1970s. "Diplomacy with the Syrian regime has failed miserably," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R- Fla.) chair of the House International Relations Middle East subcommittee. "It's time to reinforce our words with concrete, tangible and punitive measures."

The bill also includes "findings" and "sense of Congress" language denouncing Syria for its ties to Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite Islam party, for hosting offices of Palestinian militant groups, supposedly developing missiles and other advanced weapons systems and more.

All this was true in 1991 as well, but the U.S. quietly blessed Syria's role in controlling Lebanon, after civil war had divided Sunni, Shiite and Druze Muslims, Christians, Palestinians and other groups. Then, however, Syria had joined up with the U.S. to back the Gulf War on Iraq.

This time, it opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq--and now, Washington has Syria in the crosshairs.

The pressure on Syria has gone beyond words. Israeli jets bombed a supposed "terrorist training camp" nine miles outside of the capital of Damascus on October 5, 2003--the first military attack on Syria by Israel in 30 years. The bombing was almost certainly green-lighted by Washington, and George W. Bush signed the Syria sanctions law in 2003.

The unexpected rise of the resistance in Iraq, however, forced the U.S. to shelve possible plans for further intervention in Syria. Instead, Washington was confronted with a new problem: how to manage Iraqi elections that were sure to be won by Shiite parties--which could give the Shiite Muslim government in Iran more influence in Iraq, as well as through Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Washington's new tactic was to raise the pressure on Iran over its possible development of a nuclear weapon--which is intolerable to both the U.S. and Israel and viewed with alarm by European countries that have substantial investments in Iran.

The problem for Washington is that Iran vowed to resist any military attack by the U.S. or Israel--raising the prospect of a generalized Middle East war involving what retired Israeli Gen. Ze'ev Schiff calls the "Iran-Syria-Hezbollah array." The U.S. aim, therefore, is to try to isolate Syria, while stepping up pressure on Iran over nuclear weapons.

The assassination of Rafik Hariri provides an opportunity to do so. "Syria is low-hanging fruit compared to Iran," Martin Indyk, a former Middle East official in the Clinton administration, told a reporter recently.

The Hariri assassination is only the latest manifestation of the crisis in Lebanon. Last September, former Lebanese Foreign Minister Marwan Hamadeh barely survived an assassination attempt. Then, in November, Syria moved to shore up its position in Lebanon by using its effective control of the Lebanese parliament to extend the presidency of Emile Lahoud to a second six-year term.

The U.S. seized the opportunity to join with France to push through United Nations Resolution 1559, which called for a withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon. The U.S., of course, wasn't interested in such resolutions during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon--which lasted from the Israeli invasion of the country in1982 until 2000, when Hezbollah militants finally forced it to withdraw.

The U.S. itself sent foreign troops to Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1983, when it was forced to withdraw after 241 military personnel were killed by a truck bomb.

Now Washington wants a Lebanon free of Syrian influence to serve as a further beachhead for U.S. imperial power in the Middle East. Meanwhile, France, the historic colonial power in Lebanon, sees the opportunity to get back in the game. Both governments hope to further their interest by harnessing the anti-Syria backlash in Lebanon over Hariri's death.

Hariri, however, wasn't quite the Lebanse nationalist hero he's made out to be. A billionaire who made his fortune as a construction contractor to the Saudi royal family, he made plenty of Syrians rich while orchestrating a building boom in Beirut since the 1990s.

Nevertheless, his death has caused a backlash. Lebanese from across sectarian religious and political lines resent the fact that 100,000 Syrian workers are in Lebanon, often occupying the best jobs and getting favorable treatment.

That's why Hariri's death has spurred huge mobilizations. Imperialist meddling in Lebanon, however, only raises the likelihood of more bloodshed--and even a renewed civil war in Lebanon. But that's less important to Washington than securing its hold on the Middle East.

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