It has been almost six years since a brutal bombing in Beirut killed Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others on Valentine’s Day 2005. This week, the UN prosecutor overseeing the investigation finally submitted sealed indictments to the criminal court’s pre-trial judge as to who was responsible for the bombing. UN investigators and foreign intelligence over the last several years, however, have consistently pointed to senior Syrian and Iranian officials’ involvement. While the names of the indicted individuals are not expected to be known for eight weeks, the Obama Administration has known for quite some time that senior Syrian and Iranian officials are to blame for the brutal killings.
That is why it is puzzling that while the long-awaited indictments were being prepared last month, President Barack Obama naively ordered the return of the U.S. Ambassador to Syria after a six-year hiatus. Obama’s premature move gave Hezbollah, Damascus and Tehran the instant credibility they had been looking for to characterize the coming indictments as political rather than criminal.
Administration officials have ignored Lebanon’s developing crisis from the moment they took office by consistently siding with Syria. Last week, administration officials leaked that President Obama has now given French President Nicholas Sarkozy the lead in dealing with Lebanon and the indictments for the international community. The move washes Obama’s hands of Lebanon’s problems and gives France control. The outsourced foreign policy couldn’t be more pleasing to Syria and Iran.
The Obama team has been remarkably disinterested in the history of the special tribunal that has investigated the bombing and the drama it’s produced throughout Lebanon and the region. The Bush Administration’s strong response to the Hariri killings helped galvanize international support for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after 29 years. Since then, without much U.S. attention to the problem, intelligence has shown that Hezbollah, a designated terrorist group, has worked with Syria, Iran and some Lebanese officials to ensure that Hariri’s killer is never brought to justice by declaring the tribunal’s rulings illegitimate. Even U.S. ally Turkey is helping the Syrians fight the indictments with no protest from the White House.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s softer tone with Syria last week signaled the administration’s willingness to start fresh with Syria and forget its brutal past. When pressed about Syria’s role in the bombings, Clinton said, “We don’t think it is, at this moment, useful to be pointing fingers or blaming or going about the business of recriminations about what did or didn’t happen and who did or did not do what.” In other words: We are going to forgive Hezbollah, Syria and Iran for killing 23 people and hit the reset button on our relationship. It was a remarkable statement from a U.S. Secretary of State about a country with known ties to terrorists.
Irrefutable evidence compiled over the last six years proves that top officials in Iran, Syria and Hezbollah conspired to kill Hariri and the 22 others in order to gain greater control over Lebanon’s future. And although the initial UN probe in 2005 accused four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals of taking orders from neighboring Syria and Iran while working for the Lebanese military, the four were held for roughly four years but, sadly, never charged and eventually released. Since then, Syria has been desperate to close the case and have the U.S. ambassador return to Damascus in an attempt to show the world that its hands were clean all along. The Obama team should have waited for the UN tribunal’s work to finish before giving Syria such an enormous gift. Especially since the indictments were only a month away. Having the U.S. Ambassador sent back to Syria before the tribunal’s indictments were announced was a gift even the Syrians couldn’t have imagined.
After months of ignoring Lebanon’s growing regional problems, the Obama Administration now faces a Lebanon with no leader and under the control of Hezbollah. The Obama team must now justify Syria’s continued support for Hezbollah and Hamas and its hatred for Israel. Having created some of the circumstances that brought him to power, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the armed Shia group’s defiant leader, is now squarely President Obama’s problem. And what will Obama do when the indictments are unsealed and we find that senior Syrian officials are accused of killing Lebanon’s prime minister? With the U.S. Ambassador already sitting in Damascus, little incentive remains for Syria’s cooperation.