MEA Book Review: Killing Mr. Lebanon

15 01 2010

by Patrick Vibert

In 2005, one of the most wealthy and influential men in Lebanon was killed in a massive explosion that left a smoking crater where his car had been and ripped the facade off of the adjacent building. The victim was billionaire and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri,  and his murder sent shock waves throughout Lebanon and the Middle East.

Hariri and his murder are the subject of Nicholas Blandford’s 2006 book “Killing Mr Lebanon“. The book follows Hariri from his childhood in southern Lebanon, through his ascension into politics, to the events surrounding his assassination, and the aftermath of that tragic day.

In Lebanon, big time political and business success usually comes  from dynastic connections of rich and powerful clans that have been rich and powerful for generations. So it was interesting to see how a man like Hariri did it on his own, with the right amount of hard work and good fortune.

Early on, Hariri managed to impress the King of Saudi Arabia with the timely completion of an important construction project. From then on, he had the ear and the wallet of the King, and he wielded them both in Lebanon with great success.

Hariri’s used his company and connections to start about the task of rebuilding Lebanon after its civil war, and the improvements and money that he was bringing to Lebanon made him a lot of friends.

While the biographical part of the book is interesting, it’s the “Pax Syriana”  chapter detailing the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that is of higher value, and it is here where  Blandford must have spent the most time researching. The author pieces together those years in great detail, with eye-witness accounts coming from the people involved, such as Hariri’s family and his closest allies.

It is  interesting to read how Hariri evolves from a businessman to a politician, and then to see the toll that it takes on him. Particularly trying for Hariri was his relationship with the Syria, first under Hafez Assad, and then under his successor-son Bashar.

Under Assad the senior, Hariri manage to form a sort of reluctant understanding with the regime in Damascus. Over time however, the modus vivendi deteriorated, a circumstance which the author attributes to the behind-the-scenes change taking place among the ranks in Syria. Hariri worked  well with with a few veteran Syrian diplomats, but once the new generation started to transition into power, they wanted nothing to do with Hariri and would not work with him as an equal. The relationship between Hariri and Damascus continued to unravel under Assad’s son, Bashar. After being humiliated one too many times in Damascus, a dejected Hairiri told an advisor “they think we are insects.”

One of the underlying themes of the book is the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. Until the end of WWI, Lebanon was a part of Syria, and to the Assad regime, it still was. To them, Lebanon was merely a piggy-bank to siphon money from, and a bargaining chip to use against Israel. They had tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, many of “their people” worked in the government and business there, and they maintained an extensive intelligence network running throughout the country in order to learn of plans to oppose their rule. Knowing all of this, it is amazing that they ever left.

Another interesting bit described a meeting that took place between Mr. Hariri and a freshly-elected Secretary General  of Hizballah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in 1992. According to the author, the meeting went well, with Nasrallah warmly telling Hariri, “Your are the resistance that will remove the suffering of the people in Lebanon, and our party is the resistance that will remove the occupation from our people on the border. If we become allies and agree, our resistance will be your resistance and our country will move on very well. But if we disagree, you will lose both your resistance and my resistance.” The message was that Nasrallah would work with Hariri and that together they could do well, but if Hariri opposed Hizballah then he would not be able to accomplish anything for Lebanon.

Seventeen years later, it seems Nasrallah has given the same speech to Saad Hariri, the current Lebanese Prime Minister. This time however, the younger Hariri took it to heart. Recently, the freshly formed Lebanese cabinet issued a policy statement which contained formal support and acceptance of Hizballah as a legitimate defender of Lebanon. Hariri Jr. must have realized that his government simply could not function properly without Hizballah’s cooperation. And if the Lebanese government was incapable of disarming Hizballah (see events of May 2008), then it serves no purpose to have them in opposition. If Saad Hariri couldn’t beat them, he was going to join them, so to speak.

Blandford’s depiction of the evolution and eventual deterioration of Hariri’s relationship with the regime in Damascus is quite thorough and takes into account the myriad of factors that were influencing the situation. Among these are the complicated internal dynamics of Lebanese politics, the relationship between Israel and Syria, and the effects of the Bush II’s war in Iraq.

The author then uses the same level of detail taken to explain the first sixty years of Hariri’s life to parse through what happened on the last day of it. Here, Mr Blandford takes pains to detail what was happening in seemingly every minute minute of that fateful day, and not only from Hariri’s point of view but from many others including Hariri’s advisers and security, bystanders, family members, and doctors that we tasked with treating the day’s carnage. This portion of the book is the work of quality reporting that paints a vivid picture of Hariri’s last day on earth.

After all is said and done however, the author never really comes out and says who he thinks is responsible. Having read the book, it is doubtless that one could come to any other conclusion than “the Syrians did it”. But the author tip-toes around an accusation that is this direct. And I am not sure that this is to be criticized. In truth, nobody knows who planned  it. It was probably Major General Rustom Ghazelah, the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, with a wink and a nod from Bashar  Assad, but we don’t know for sure.

The best we can do, which the author effectively does for us, is to connect the dots: Rafik Hariri was the most powerful man in Lebanon outside of Syria’s control, over time his relationship with Damascus had deteriorated, critics of Syria had a long history of turning up dead, usually from explosions, and some people with immense capabilities murdered Hariri in a spectacular fashion.

Syria denies all of this of course, with the line being we lost the most  from his assassination, why would we have done it? This is a fair point. But just like Hassan Nasrallah famously stated after the 2006 War that he would not have kidnapped those soldiers in Israel if he knew that doing so would lead to such destruction and loss of life for Lebanon, maybe those who planned and authorized the plot against Hariri didn’t think it would have such repercussions for Syria.

Unfortunately for Syria, this was the case and Damascus came under immediate fire for its perceived transgression. Saudi Arabia was livid with the loss of Hariri, as was France, whose President Jacques Chirac was a close personal friend of Hariri. And then there was the United States, who was already furious with Damascus for letting jihadists flood into Iraq from Syria. The international pressure was just too much, and Syria was forced out of Lebanon just weeks after the assassination.

To date, the United Nations probe into Hariri’s murder is still ongoing. Perhaps this is for the best. Responsible for his death or not, Syria has already paid a very high price for it and it is highly unlikely that any smoking gun would be produced in the future  to exonerate Damascus in the plot. The only thing to come out of a guilty finding against Damascus would be a restoking of tensions between Syria and Lebanon, especially amongst Lebanon’s Sunni population. With the case remaining hopelessly open, Lebanon maintains some leverage over Syria.

On  a personal level, it is interesting to consider Saad Hariri’s relationship with Bashar Assad, the man who in all likelihood is responsible for his father’s death in some way. Syria still wields tremendous influence over its tiny neighbor Lebanon, and healthy relations with Damascus are imperative for Lebanon. What must go through Hariri’s mind when he meets with Assad, as he did this past December?

It is reminiscent of Walid Jumblatt having to travel to Syria to meet with Assad Sr after the Syrian military had just killed his father. In a not-too-subtle warning to Jumblatt, Assad is said to have remarked on just how much Walid looked like his father.  Has Saad Hariri experience something similar in Damascus?

All in all, Mr. Blandford’s work is an engrossing mix of thorough reporting and effective storytelling. Hariri’s death didn’t happen all of a sudden, in some historical vacuum. There were events that precipitated it and there are events that are occurring as a result of it, and the author does a nice job of explaining both. Blandford goes through the Civil War, the occupation, the assassination, and the aftermath in a way that effectively ties it all together and leaves the reader with a solid foundation for understanding this complicated nation going forward.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

4 responses

13 02 2010
Hariri’s assassination, five years on | Lebanon

[…] In his book, “Killing Mr. Lebanon” author Nicholas Blanford asserts that Hariri recognized the political reality of Syrian influence in Lebanon, and that while he opposed some of the policies Syria had established, he always tried to work with Damascus to influence its decisions instead of trying to circumvent their authority with his own agenda. During his time as Prime Minister from 2000 to 2004, Hariri would routinely return from Syria dejected. In Hariri’s view, Lebanon could have been dealt with as an equal, and that there was no reason that the two countries couldn’t come to favorable agreements through cooperation. […]

13 02 2010
Hariri’s assassination, five years on « Middle Eastern Analysis

[…] In his book, “Killing Mr. Lebanon” author Nicholas Blanford asserts that Hariri recognized the political reality of Syrian influence in Lebanon, and that while he opposed some of the policies Syria had established, he always tried to work with Damascus to influence its decisions instead of trying to circumvent their authority with his own agenda. During his time as Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998 and 2000 to 2004, Hariri would routinely return from Syria dejected. In Hariri’s view, Lebanon could have been dealt with as an equal, and that there was no reason that the two countries couldn’t come to favorable agreements through cooperation. […]

2 02 2012
Shahed Al Hindi

I love this book, great review, I think it is such a good read for those wishing to inform themselves about the situation in Lebanon. However, I would argue that Hariri remained a great businessman throughout his whole life rather than a politician. He was a clever man and although Hariri was interested in rebuilding Lebanon we must not forget he owned a large construction company…

18 05 2012
EA Editor

Thanks for your post, Shahed. Sorry for the delayed response.

You are absolutely right. At the end of the day, Hariri Sr was a shrewd businessman who made millions of the rebuilding of Lebanon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: