Imagine if you could ask Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad whether, if he were able to travel back in time, he would do anything differently regarding the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri was killed exactly 10 years ago today. It was a politically-motivated crime that shocked the region and marked a historic milestone that has changed the political equation. Following his assassination, and also as a direct result of it, much blood has been shed, staining both Lebanon and Syria.
Was Hariri’s assassination the mere whim of a young man who had just ascended to power and who refused to take “no” for an answer? Or was it an Iranian-Syrian scheme orchestrated with Hezbollah to get rid of rival leaders and curb opponents?
I cannot confirm whether it was a whim or if it was driven by the desire to dominate. But the series of assassinations that followed the murder of Hariri implied that Assad, along with Hezbollah, was working to eliminate the opposing camp and perhaps rule Lebanon. It must be said, though, that when it comes to Lebanese affairs, it’s never possible to place the issues of sectarianism and conflicting forces—with shifting loyalties and alliances—on the back burner. The murderous elimination of leading political, security and media figures only increased the Lebanese people’s resolve to stick to their positions and pushed them toward further entrenchment, especially with regard to what later came to be known as the March 14 Alliance.
But to return to the question at hand: would Assad have taken the decisions that he did at the time if he could have read the future?
Of course we don’t know what is going on in his mind, but what we can infer from his recent interview with the BBC is that he is incapable of uttering the words “I admit” and “I’m sorry.” Despite killing a quarter of a million Syrians and displacing ten million others, he refused to admit to any of the mistakes he has committed. This was true even when he responded to questions on his approach during the early days of the revolution. He insisted on repeating that he is responsible for protecting his people from terrorists!
It’s been 10 years since the assassination of Hariri and Assad is still incapable of admitting his mistakes in the handling of Lebanese affairs. It’s been four years since the Syrian uprising and he still refuses to admit any wrongdoing. Thus, it is fair to say that he hasn’t changed at all.
The crime of assassinating Hariri is the most important event of Assad’s life. Ever since that dark day when Hariri was murdered, Assad has been on the back foot.
Following the crime, the UN Security Council forced him to withdraw his forces from Lebanon. He was also directly accused of orchestrating the crime and was politically besieged for four years. Furthermore, governments who were once friendly with him, such as Gulf and European governments, boycotted him and his foreign affairs ministry became focused on denying accusations. At the beginning of 2009—five years after the murder of Hariri—his isolation receded slightly at the Kuwait economic summit after a reconciliation was announced. However, assassinations continued, implying that the president hadn’t changed his ways, perhaps indicating that he saw the summit outcome as a win rather than a reconciliation. This superior attitude towards others and lack of value for human life, as well as pressure by regional and international forces, led him to face revolt in Dera’a and other Syrian cities. He has now ended up besieged in Damascus.
Today, Assad is just a president on paper and is shored up by Iranian leaders and Iraqi and Hezbollah militias who fight his battles for him. Who would have thought that assassinating a peaceful man like Hariri, who had no militia or tribe to defend him, would lead to all these wars and suffering?