LEBANON: Supporters stunned as Hariri says Syria didn't kill his dad
Praise, skepticism, betrayal, and mere confusion. The list of reactions is long in Arab media commentaries and on blogs and Web forums to Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri retracting his accusation against Syria in the 2005 assassination of his father in a recent interview.
Whatever the intentions of Hariri's words, they've triggered a storm of feelings and heated debate. Reactions differ greatly, but if there is one thing that many can agree on, it's that Hariri's sudden switch marks a major turning point in the Lebanese political climate -- for good or for bad.
Jamil Mroue, publisher of the Lebanese independent newspaper Daily Star, called Hariri's statements "a milestone" in an opinion editorial on Tuesday titled " Hariri has shown his leadership."
Hariri, who for years blamed Syria for his father's death, dropped a bombshell on Monday when he told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that it was a mistake to accuse Syria in the giant truck bomb that killed ex-Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri along with 21 others near the St George Hotel on the Beirut waterfront on Feb. 14, 2005, claiming that the charge was politically motivated.
"This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has finished," Hariri said in the interview while emphasizing that the determination of his father's killers lies in the hands of the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, set up to probe the crime.
Hariri went on to stress that Syria and Lebanon had deep ties, echoing the recent intensified reconciliation efforts between the two nations. Over the last year, Hariri has made no less than five visits to his neighboring former arch-foe to improve ties. Most recently, he took up Bashar Assad on his invitation to a Ramadan suhour, a predawn supper, with the Syrian leader in Damascus on Aug. 29.
Lebanese blogger "Mustapha" suggested in a post on his Beirutspring blog that Hariri's full-out apology to Syria will likely not go down well with many of Hariri's supporters from his mainly Sunni Muslim Future movement who will feel cheated by their leader.
"There will definitely be a sense of betrayal with many of the Future Movement rank-and-files who spent the last 5 years of their lives burning bridges with Syria and Syrians and wasting energy on convincing people that the Syrian regime is pure evil," he wrote in a post.
So what could have pushed Hariri to say what he did?
"Mustapha" reflected on a couple of what he thought could be reasons, including domestic and regional political pressure and issues related to the controversy-riddled international tribunal which is believed to be issuing indictments in his father's murder before the end of this year.
"Could Mr. Hariri have sold-out justice for his father to political expediency (or Saudi pressure)?," asked the blogger. "Does Mr. Hariri know something about the upcoming STL (Special Tribunal for Lebanon) indictment? Wouldn’t that mean that the Tribunal is not as air-tight as Mr. Hariri and his allies keep insisting?"
Tension has risen in Lebanon since Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, said in July that he expected the tribunal would indict Hezbollah members. Hezbollah has repeatedly denied any involvement in the Hariri murder and Nasrallah dismissed allegations, denouncing the tribunal as an "Israeli project" in a series of fiery speeches.
In an August press conference he hosted via video link, Nasrallah accused Israel of plotting and carrying out Hariri's assassination, basing his claim on confessions from ex-Israeli spies and alleged Israeli surveillance video.
Another Lebanese blogger, Oussama Hayek, who describes himself as a "Lebanese Libertarian Atheist," expressed a dose of skepticism over Hariri's apology to Syria, writing in a blog post that Hariri's choice of words shows he has given in to domestic political pressures over the tribunal.
"Hariri is playing into the hands of those (Hizbollah) who are attempting to discredit the entire investigation," he wrote.
Another scenario could be that Hariri might feel he needs Syria in the background to prevent renewed political strife between Sunni and Shiites, suggested the blogger. Fears of a Sunni-Shiite schism have been mounting in recent times, especially when members of Hezbollah and supporters of the Syria-backed conservative Sunni movement Ahbash clashed in a deadly confrontation between the two political allies in the streets of Beirut a couple of weeks ago.
Mroue, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of Hariri reconciling with Syria for the future of the Lebanese democratization process as well as for his own stature as prime minister.
"This dramatic burying of the hatchet with Damascus brings into sharp focus his role as leader of the government. Saad Hariri is extricating himself from heavy political shackles, and he has created the opportunity to undertake the construction challenges that have been holding back the maturation of Lebanon’s democracy," he wrote.
Commenting on Hariri's statements, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said that Hariri is convinced of his ties with the Syrian president and the political relationship with Damascus, according to local media reports.
"This is his conviction and it is better than letting anyone convince him about it," Jumblatt told the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, walks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri after a meeting in Damascus last year. Credit: Reuters