Mob War In the Mideast

By David Ignatius (WASHINGTON POST, 04/01/06):

In the gangster movies, you know all hell is about to break loose when one of the disgruntled old dons decides to switch sides and rat out the young Godfather. Something like that is now happening with Syria — and it provides a new year’s bombshell for an already turbulent Middle East.

The turncoat don in this case is Syria’s former vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam. From exile in France, he gave an astonishing interview Friday that linked the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to the murder last year of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri. He told al-Arabiya television that “there were many threats” from Syria against Hariri before his death, and that it was “impossible that any apparatus in Syria could have taken a unilateral decision to murder Hariri” without Assad’s approval.

Khaddam offered other devastating details. He said that after Hariri’s death, he went to Assad and denounced Syria’s chief of intelligence in Lebanon, Gen. Rustom Ghazali. “I told Bashar that he should bring this criminal [Ghazali] and chop his head off because he had created this situation in Lebanon.” He said he advised Assad “to form an investigation committee to punish the officers who committed blunders in Lebanon,” but that the Syrian president balked.

The revelations instantly made Khaddam the decisive witness in the United Nations’ investigation of Hariri’s death and put a tight new squeeze on Assad and his regime. In the movies, Khaddam would now be entering a witness protection program, and the warlords would be grabbing their submachine guns. And in real life, it may not be all that different. But this is a mafia war that could widen to involve real armies in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and even distant Iran.

To understand the latest turns of the screw in Syria and Lebanon, I spoke by telephone yesterday with Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and something of a warlord himself. He described the disclosures by Khaddam, whom he called “one of the main architects of Syrian policy for three decades,” as “quite a blow” for Assad and his key Lebanese ally, the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

But as Assad is backed deeper into a corner, he cautioned, the situation will become more dangerous for Lebanon. “The more you squeeze the Syrians, the more they get aggressive here,” Jumblatt said.

The Druze leader is holed up in his ancestral fortress of Moukhtara, in the Chouf Mountains. Like other Lebanese I spoke with this week, he fears a deadly new attack by the Syrians that would attempt to trigger sectarian conflict in Lebanon — and take the heat off Damascus. Jumblatt argues that the only stable outcome will be regime change in Syria — a “Milosevic solution” that will bring Assad to justice through the United Nations.

What makes the Syria-Lebanon situation especially volatile, Jumblatt explained, is that it is linked to the radical new Iranian regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He argued that Iran is using its alliance with Assad and Hezbollah in its larger strategic battles against Israel and the United States. “It’s as if we are defending Iranian nuclear facilities from the border of Lebanon,” he said.

Jumblatt says he hopes America will stand by the Cedar Revolution. “If Bush considers Lebanon one of his major achievements, now is the time to protect Lebanon,” he told me. When I asked what he wanted from America, he answered: “You came to Iraq in the name of majority rule. You can do the same thing in Syria.”

What can the United States do, realistically, to keep the Syria-Lebanon situation from exploding? The answer partly is to stick with the U.N. investigation that is slowly wrenching out the truth about Hariri’s murder. The new Belgian prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, has signaled that he wants to interview Assad, and there are rumors he will demand that Syria arrest Gen. Ghazali and hold him as a prime suspect. If Assad refuses either request, the United States and France may seek targeted U.N. sanctions that would seize foreign assets of members of Syria’s ruling elite.

The challenge for the United States is to help Lebanon become strong enough to resist Syrian hegemony. A potential breakthrough would be a U.S.-brokered agreement for Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms area along the Lebanon border, under a U.N. agreement that the territory belongs to Lebanon. That would give the struggling Lebanese government a symbolic victory — and would undercut Hezbollah’s rationale for maintaining its militia. That issue should be at the top of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s in-box as she starts the new year — perhaps along with an old tape of “The Godfather.”