: A Despicable Crime, And A Disconcerting Response

: A Despicable Crime, And A Disconcerting Response February 16, 2005

The brutal assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a terrible tragedy. I condemn it unequivocally, and I pray those responsible are found and swiftly brought to justice. Swift condemnations rang across the world, and the authorities are fast at work trying to find the culprits behind this heinous murder. Reports have surfaced that police have already questioned four people and are searching for a man who claimed responsibility for the attack on Al Jazeera.

One seriously wonders why such a prominent Lebanese official such as Mr. Hariri would be attacked and killed in such a manner. Was it Al Qaeda? Did it have something to do with his business interests? Was it Syria? Many fingers in Lebanon have pointed toward Damascus. More concerning, however, are the fingers pointing toward Syria from the direction of Washington.

Soon after the assassination, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria was recalled by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “Following the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri, Ambassador [Margaret] Scobey delivered a message to the Syrian Government expressing our deep concern, as well as our profound outrage, over this heinous act of terrorism.”

Mr. Boucher went further: “In recent months, we have raised repeatedly with senior officials of the Syrian Government a number of issues, including the Syrian presence in Lebanon, the continued presence and operational activities of international terrorist groups and of the Iranian regime on and through Syrian territory, and the use of Syrian territory by the Iraqi insurgency. To date, these concerns have not been adequately addressed and we again call upon the Syrian Government to take positive action on all these matters.”

Secretary of State Rice said, “The Syrian Government is, unfortunately, on a path right now that — where relations are not improving but are worsening…” The United States has not flat out accused Syria of being responsible for the murder, but all the public statements seem to suggest that the U.S. believes that the Syrians had a hand in the killing.

This is disconcerting. Not because I am a fan of the Syrian Government; far from it. I am concerned, however, that the winds of war may be starting to blow from Washington and heading towards Damascus. It eerily reminds me of the prelude towards the disastrous war in Iraq.

First, the U.S., through the United Nations, imposed economic sanctions against Iraq. Similarly, the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions against Syria through the Syria Accountability Act of 2003. After the attacks of September 11, the Bush Administration accused Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism and hinted at links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

A similar thing is being said about Syria. Quoting the Syria Accountability Act, the bill specifically aims to “halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal importation of Iraqi oil, and hold Syria accountable for its role in the Middle East…”

In a news briefing at the Pentagon on April 9, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked this question: “When peace finally comes to Iraq, at least stability, what’s next in the Middle East? You have thrown down the gauntlet to Syria. Are they in the sights for military action? What about Iran, which to many is the 800-pound gorilla in the Middle East? What’s next for us in the Middle East?”

This was his response: “No one’s thrown down the gauntlet. I’ve accurately observed that they would be well advised to not provide military capabilities to Iraq. They seem to have made a conscious to decision to ignore that. Senior regime people are moving out of Iraq into Syria, and Syria is continuing to send things into Iraq. We find it notably unhelpful. The question you ask, however, is not a question I can answer. It depends on people’s behavior. And certainly I have nothing to announce. We’re still dealing with Iraq.” The answer was frightening. He did not say “yes,” but he also did not say “no,” either. That’s why I’m nervous.

I can totally envision the United States deciding on military action in Syria because of its occupation of Lebanon, its support for terrorism, and its harboring leaders of the Iraqi insurgency. After all, our new national security strategy is to take out threats way before they materialize. Yet, this would be disastrous. It would further destabilize an already unstable Middle East because of the Iraq invasion; it would further stretch our military to a new level of thinness; it would further inflame anti-American sentiment to new levels, and it would hardly make America safer.

I may be reading way too much into our country’s reaction to the Hariri assassination, and I hope I am. It is right for America to express outrage at his killing, and if Syria was behind the murder, it is right to recall our Ambassador. Yet, I hope that the murder of Hariri did not set into motion events that would lead to another military adventure in the Middle East. The absolute last thing America needs is more American boots on more Arab and Muslim soil. It is the absolute last thing America needs.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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