Rafiq Hariri was a bold, self-made billionaire but a prudent politician. Syrian troops occupied his country and bossed its politics, yet during two terms as Lebanon's dynamic Prime Minister, he was careful never to oppose Syria head on. When he was summoned to Damascus last summer to endorse changes in his country's constitution that would allow Lebanon's Syria-controlled puppet President to remain in power, he bowed to the demand despite his strong opposition. When he returned to Beirut with his arm in a white sling, wags joked that he had undergone a painful arm twisting. But some close to Hariri had another explanation: the sling was his theatrical way of signaling his disagreement with Syrian policies. Instead it may have signed his death warrant.
More than anyone, Hariri was responsible for resurrecting Lebanon from the chaos and blight of its bloody civil war, which ravaged the country from 1975 until 1990. During his tenure, gleaming hotels and apartment towers sprang up along Beirut's Mediterranean shore. Perhaps that is why it was there, on a bend in the famed seafront corniche just by the five-star Phoenicia Hotel, that a thunderous explosion blew apart Hariri's armor-plated convoy, killing him and 14 others. As the blast showered the pavement with broken glass and sent a column of black smoke into the sky, suspicion quickly focused on the country that has used political assassination to maintain its dominion over Lebanon for three decades: Syria. Though Damascus denied involvement, anti-Syrian emotions were unleashed in the streets of Beirut, where tens of thousands of mourners from across Lebanon's political spectrum turned Hariri's funeral into a freedom march, demanding an end to Syria's occupation of Lebanon.
The Hariri assassination could set off wider reverberations. The possibility that Syria was to blame was reason enough for the Bush Administration to turn up the heat in its campaign of pressure against a regime it has long considered a festering sore in the region. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top officials last week ticked off a list of grievances against the Baathist regime of President Bashar Assad, from Syria's destabilizing presence in Lebanon to its alleged support of insurgents in Iraq to its funding and protection of terrorist groups like Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Bush said Syria "is out of step" with U.S. policy in the region, while members of Congress called for the U.S. to punish the Assad government for its litany of misdeeds. The strategy isn't hard to read. As Washington continues its push for change in the Middle East, taking a hard line with Syria is now part of the formula. "Syria is feeling pretty lonesome," says Richard Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, "and I guess people in Washington think that's a good state of mind to have them in."