Assassinat de Rafic Hariri
PARIS, Feb 15 (AFP) - The assassination of Rafiq Hariri was a deliberate blow to France, whose leader President Jacques Chirac was a personal friend of the former Lebanese prime minister and has sponsored UN moves to end the Syrian occupation, Paris-based commentators said Tuesday.
While the government refused to point a finger of blame -- adhering publicly to Chirac's call for an international investigation into the murder -- analysts and Middle East specialists were less circumspect about who they thought was behind it.
"I have not the shadow of a doubt that Syria is responsible. It was a message to the Lebanese opposition -- but also to France: this is our colony, we are masters here and we intend to stay. So keep out," said Antoine Basbous, president of the Observatory of Arab Countries.
Hariri regularly visited France and kept a multi-million euro mansion in central Paris. He was one of the first foreign leaders to be invited to the Elysee palace after Chirac's 2005 election, and the following year was presented by the president with the grand cross of the Legion of Honour.
"I am convinced this attack -- the most significant since the end of Lebanon's war -- was a message directed at Chirac, who was a personal friend of Rafiq Hariri," said Antoine Sfeir, director of the Cahiers de l'Orient newsletter.
"The evidence suggests that the murder is a response to UN security council resolution 1559 voted in September at the initiative of France and the US. It was Jacques Chirac who was the real architect of the resolution," he said.
Resolution 1559 calls for the withdrawal of Syria's estimated 15,000 troops from Lebanon and the reestablishment of full Lebanese sovereignty. A month after it was passed Syria strong-armed a change to Lebanon's constitution to extend the mandate of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud -- the move which prompted Hariri's resignation as prime minister.
According to Basbous, Hariri was personally threatened over the resolution by Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon Rostom Ghazale. "Hariri told his friends that Ghazale put a pistol to his head and said: 'It's your choice: Syria or Resolution 1559,'" Basbous said.
Writing in Liberation newspaper analyst Jean-Pierre Perrin said that the fact that Chirac has called for an international enquiry to identify the killers "is a way of casting doubt over any Lebanese-Syrian enquiry" and shows that Paris also suspects Damascus.
"Chirac is all the more furious because he did so much to get (Syrian president) Bashar el-Assad known outside his country," Perrin said. "The assassination of the former prime minister looks like a real challenge thrown down not just to Paris and Washington -- but to the whole international community -- by a Syria that is increasingly isolated, even in the Arab world," he said.
Syria has condemned the assassination. According to its supporters, the fact that suspicion automatically fell on Damascus suggests that another agent was responsible and calculated that Syria would be blamed.
But Basbous said this is no argument. "They have done this before. They kill and then are the first to send in their condolences. Duplicity is a hallmark of the Syrian regime," he said.
"Hariri was a heavyweight. He had a contacts book full of the telephone numbers of world leaders. He could call up Chirac, he could call up Bush. Syria didn't want someone as influential as that living next door," he said.
"It is a message addressed to Lebanese politicians -- see what can happen if you get in our way. And it's a message to the international community to remind them of the essential fact - without us there will be chaos," said Sfeir.