Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Nora Boustany was be online Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the political situation in Lebanon. On Monday, former prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in a bombing attack that also killed nine other people. Hariri had resigned his post in October 2004 to protest Syrian interference in Lebanese politics and had become a member of the country's political opposition.
Boustany, who writes The Post's Diplomatic Dispatches column, began as foreign correspondent covering the civil war in Lebanon in 1979. She reported on the 1982 Israeli invasion, the phenomenon of extremist groups linked to Iran, and Lebanon's various political crises. She also covered the 1991 Gulf War and served as Washington Post bureau chief in Amman, Jordan, from 1992-1995.
The transcript follows.
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Nora Boustany: Hello everyone. Many thanks for your interest in this important development. First of all let me say that Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was a larger than life figure whose assassination has far larger consequences and ramifications than his death. It is linked to all the momentous regional changes taking place with democracy on the march and the changing power charts in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.
I'm concerned that Hariri's assisination will start a chain reaction of events that will lead Lebanon back into a civil war. How much credit do you give the Lebanese people, who are just beginning to see their country reemerge from years of destruction, to do everything in their power to avoid a repeat of 1972? Do you think that this incident will serve as an accelator for the unresolved tensions from the end of the war in the 1990s, or that it will be viewed as more urgent message for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon?
Nora Boustany: It may. But again, sadly, Hariri's passing may finally unite the Lebanese against the forces of instability that have ravaged their country all these years. Remember that the civil war broke out 30 years ago. Everyone is older and wiser, yet Syria maintains power there and influence on Hizbullah which it has refused to see disarmed by the Lebanese authorities.
The way the Lebanese population reacts will show if it has matured. It should be able to do at the ballot box what it used to do with war in the past.
Good morning, Ms. Boustany. I imagine this you must be accompanied during this discussion by an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.
How certain are we that Syrian agents were responsible for the Hariri assassination? If they were, do we know they were acting on Assad's instructions?
Everyone seems to think Syria is the most likely culprit, and I have no reason to disagree. But there are some things about this situation that don't quite make sense. If Hariri's murder did lead Lebanon back to the turmoil of the civil war period, everyone would blame Syria, and Syria no longer has the political cover in the Arab world provided, 20 years ago, by the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon.
It just looks as if starting down that road represents an awfully big risk for Syria, with a doubtful and scarcely visible payoff. That doesn't mean Syria wasn't responsible, of course, but does it not leave room for some doubt?
Nora Boustany: There is always room for doubt. In the last 30 years, however, Syria's record in Lebanon has not been very good in terms of political assassinations. We have seen two presidents-elect, another prime minister, a grand mufti, a druze leader and scores of journalists and mediators killed with accusing fingers always pointing at Syria.
The hard evidence may never come to light. What is certain, however, is that within Syria and within Lebanon, there are reactionary forces driven by self-interest or ideology who stand to lose from its diminishing power in Lebanon.
The international consensus against Syrian meddling in Lebanon has never been more resolute. This is very threatening to all those elements who have been benefiting from the status quo. This includes Syrian hawks of the old guard, opportunistic Lebanese politicians and shadowy go betweens who have made lots of money and amassed a lot of influence on the side. Bashar Assad himself, the president of Syria, may not have ordered or even wanted this act to take place, since it will only open a can of worms in terms of his ties to the rest of the world. But as I said, this was a desperate act of several factions, regional, local and mercenary who stand to lose from the democratization process in Lebanon and the rest of the region.
South Hadley, Mass.:
When the government removes its envoy from Syria, is it just the Ambassador or other US employees? Is this move seen to be a harsh statement to Syria?
Nora Boustany: When Washington recalls its envoy from Syria, it is a very stern diplomatic signal that all is not well and certain boundaries in the way nations should deal with one another have not been respected.
It is certainly a very public international rebuke, yet if not followed by more serious demands, it will not have much impact. The embassy usually functions normally in the absence of its ambassador in Damascus unless the staff are pulled out and ties are severed which is very unlikely at this point, since dialogue to overcome this impasse is necessary.
Thanks for having this chat.
What has the reaction been on the Syrian side? Do you think the Syrian government is surprised by the depth of feeling shown by the Lebanese populace?
Nora Boustany: The Syrian government had denied it was behind the assassination, which is something that is hard for the Lebanese to accept after all the killings that have taken place targeting anyone who signalled he would not bow to Syria's wishes. I am sure there are many well-intentioned and innocent Syrians who are as devastated by this news as the Lebanese themselves. Regardless of the actual perpetrator, this slaying will isolate Syria further and compel reformers within the Syrian political scene to also push for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The large question is whether Syrian President Bashar Assad has full control over the more recalcitrant remnants from his father's regime who cannot see change in Syria or Lebanon as benefiting their interests or vision.
Nora, I'm a bit confused. What's the point of assassinating a FORMER primer minister? Or was Hariri continuing to play a role as eminence gris?
Nora Boustany: Prime Minister Hariri was prime minister five times. He was a billionnaire worth at least $4 billion, one of the world's 100 richest men. He used his international contacts and good standing in financial and banking sectors abroad to keep Lebanon as a viable nation with a solid currency. More recently, he had stepped down from public office but was very active as a member of parliament. He was on good terms with a vocal opposition which has gathered momentum in recent months and includes Moslems and Christians. They were working in concert to plan for elections coming up in May to dilute Syria's influence in Lebanon's unicameral legislature.
One thing I haven't seen covered on this story is why Syria remains so involved with Lebanon. In other words what do they gain by remaining in control of Lebanon?
Nora Boustany: Syria seems to believe that its control in Lebanon gives it larger traction in influencing policy in the Middle East. It has seen Lebanon, especially when it was weakened during the war, as a point of pressure against Israel in the past and as a way of getting attention and recognition from Washington and other international powers.
However, the equation has changed somewhat, and though Syria is largely in control of the political class that rules by virtue of its backing, there is a shift in American policy and in the way the world is dealing with terror instigated acts.
Ther regime in Damascus under the new leadership of the young Bashar Assad has not had time to adapt to these changes and bring old elements to respect a new order. The power vacuum which reigned in the late seventies and eighties in Lebanon gave it more recognition at the time, because it was seen as the stable neighbor.
The war in Iraq, rumblings about Syrian backing to certain Al Qaeda elements and former Iraqi Baathists has cast a new shadow over the recognition Syria thought it had.
New York, N.Y.:
Thank you for this chat, Ms. Boustany.
Who do you see as a potential "successor" to Mr. Hariri? Obviously he was no longer "in" government -- but still played a very important role as a builder / leader / focus for a number of different concerns (Gulf tourism, reconstruction, European interaction). Is there any one name that comes to mind as a fullfiller of similar positions, or several possible people who might each continue the work that Mr. Hariri did in the different areas of his political, financial and social life?
Nora Boustany: Mr. Hariri's shoes will be hard to fill by one man. He was seen as a billionaire philanthropist and a compassionate savior by many factions in Lebanon and by the world at large. The Lebanese are a very resilient and resourceful people and Prime Minister Hariri started several foundations and public/private companies that will continue. His impact on the rebuilding of Lebanon will be tremendous, and his legacy will outlive him if the country can avoid further destabilization.
He has two sons, Baha and Saad, who have been helping him run his empire in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. He also is survived by many talented advisers, bankers, economists and committed Lebanese who shared his vision. Let us see whether they can work together to keep his institutions running smoothly. I cannot name one person to replace him, however ther are several wealthy Lebanese entrepreneurs who are already very much involved in the economic, touristic and financial revival of Beirut.
The US media is reporting a lot of anger in Lebanon toward Syria over the Hariri bombing. Do you have any sense that this incident is stoking anti-American sentiment as well (either for provoking Syria or for tolerating Syria)?
Nora Boustany: It is highly unlikely that this event will stoke anti-American sentiment at this point. There are expectations, however, that America should step up to the plate and walk the walk of all its talk about bringing democracy to the Arab world.
Hariri was very American in his vision, his approach to business and development and also in his work ethic and faith in free enterprise. His followers and the many Lebanese who are sad to see him go realize that. However, if Lebanon is abandoned once again to lick its wounds, while the United States and other powers turn their back while focussing only on Iraq and Saudi Arabia, this will be tragic mistake.
If Syrian agents in Lebanon or Lebanese operators of Syrian intelligence seize this event to create more havoc and uncertainty in Lebanon, the Lebanese will turn their bitterness against American policy in the long run. Few Lebanese forget that after taking a central role in Lebanon in the early eighties, the U.S. opted out, eventually subcontracting Lebanon to Syria. In 1989, U.S. envoy Richard Murphy was unable to convince President Hafez Assad that he had to let the Lebanese choose their own presidential candidate rather than impose one on them. American policy subjugated itself to Syria's willfulness in Lebanon at the time, because of the violence and because it was drawn into a war against Iraq to free Kuwait. Doing so now would be a fatal mistake and greatly harm American credibility and goodwill towards U.S. intentions in the wake of Iraq's elections.
Nora Boustany: It was a pleasure to chat with you and I hope my answers helped shed light on a very complex situation. Thank you and Good Bye.