DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 18 -- The Syrian government has reacted defiantly to accusations that it had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, underscoring a strategic interest in Lebanon that makes it unlikely international pressure will force Syria to withdraw forces from its smaller neighbor.
The rage and grief over Hariri's death Monday in an apparent car bombing in Beirut have angered the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has denied any involvement in the slaying and refused calls by Lebanese leaders and the Bush administration to remove its 15,000 troops in Lebanon.
Protesters demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops during a rally in front of the Lebanese parliament in Beirut. Anger over the assassination Monday of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri has united Lebanon's opposition.
(Hussein Malla -- AP)
Syrian officials have accused Lebanese opposition leaders, now preparing for parliamentary elections that are shaping up as a referendum on Syria's presence in their country, of taking advantage of Hariri's killing to further their political agenda. But the bombing also appears to serve Syria's goals at a time when Hariri and other Lebanese leaders were posing a growing threat to Syria's influence in the country and to Assad's leadership.
"If the opposition wins a majority in parliament, it could spell not only the end of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, but the regime's hold on power," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador to Syria.
Ford said the uncertainty surrounding the bombing left him unconvinced that Damascus had a hand in it: "The objective would have been to administer shock and awe, Syrian style, to sow fear within the Lebanese political classes that had been crossing some of Syria's red lines."
The killing has reminded the region that Syria, whether responsible or not, has reasons for wanting to maintain its decisive influence in Lebanon. Western diplomats here say the Syrian government, which first sent troops to Lebanon in 1975 at the request of the embattled Christian-led government, has always feared a cohesive Lebanese opposition movement far more than international pressure.
As an increasingly important voice against Syrian influence, Hariri threatened Assad's control over Syria's ruling Baath Party, whose senior members have substantial economic and political interests in Lebanon. Many of the officials with the most to lose from a withdrawal belong to Syria's security and intelligence services, which have a history of acting without orders. For example, an attempt in the 1980s by Syrian intelligence agents to down an Israeli airliner in London was thwarted by Israeli intelligence; the plot was never revealed to Hafez Assad, the current president's father, who died in June 2000.
Syrian officials say Hariri's assassination has worked against their interests by uniting Lebanon's Christian, Druze and Sunni parties, some of which battled one another during years of sectarian strife.
The opposition does not control a majority in Lebanon's parliament, but the fresh surge of anger over Syria's presence has strengthened its position heading into elections scheduled to be held as early as April.
"We had everything to gain by working with Hariri, and everything to lose by his death," said Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria's minister for expatriates and a noted political writer. "Hariri was a bridge. The one who carried out his killing is the one trying to escalate the tensions and instability in this region."
The Lebanese opposition has been coalescing at a time when Assad is surrounded by potentially destabilizing political change, Western diplomats here say. The ethnic Kurds' success in Iraq's elections last month has complicated the Syrian government's relations with its own restive Kurdish minority. About 50 Kurdish prisoners have begun a hunger strike to protest conditions.
At the same time, Hariri's death has revived diplomatic threats to Syria that had languished for months.
The U.S. and French governments have renewed calls that Syria comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last year that calls on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, the armed, radical Shiite Muslim movement on Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Syria announced this week that it would form a "common front" with Iran against mutual threats, an agreement Shaaban said did not include military cooperation.
"If all the Lebanese would gather now and ask us to leave, we will get out," said Baha Din Hassan, an independent member of Syria's parliament. "But we won't get out just because of the small minority we see calling for it now."