Blogs > HNN > Microsoft Undoes The Last Don

Oct 23, 2005 8:57 pm

Microsoft Undoes The Last Don

Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Why They Don't Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948. He is also a contributor, with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, to Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation. Click here to access his homepage.

The just released Mehlis Report investigating who was behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri contains two surprises, one more spectacular yet ultimately less revealing than the other. The first is the names of the five senior Syrian and Lebanese officials believed to be behind the killing. Well, not the names themselves; most observers strongly suspected that the individuals named in the report--unintentionally, it's clear--were involved. Rather it is the manner in which the reader comes upon them that is so surprising.

As a colleague who emailed me the report explained, "Go to the top of p. 29, parag. 96. Do you see it?" "See what?" I asked. "You can't see it? You need to turn on… what's that called? The, umm… go to View, Mark-up, and…" "Do you mean 'track changes?'" I interjected. "What's that? No, just click on mark up…"

So I clicked on track changes and, voila, right at the second sentence of parag. 96, where the text reads "senior Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Rafik Hariri…" an edit box popped up in the right margin that revealed that the phrase "Senior Lebanese officials" had in fact replaced the actual names of these officials, which were deleted before publication of the final draft. Fortunately for the world, however, they were deleted using Microsoft Word's "track changes" tool, because of which they remained visible to anyone who happened to have it turned on when he or she opened the file.

Who are the men whose identities were so sensitive the Report's authors thought better of publishing them? Quite literally, the "capiregime," or crewbosses, of the Syrian-Lebanese mafia (more commonly known as the Syrian and Lebanese governments). The first is Maher Asad, Bashar al-Asad's brother and the head of the Republican Guard and intelligence services. The second is Assef Shawkat, Asad's brother-in-law and the Deputy Chief of Military Intelligence. The third, Hassan Khalil, was the head of military intelligence before being replaced by Shawkat. The fourth is Bahjat Suleyman, a friend of Shawkat and one of the three members (along with Asad's brother and Shawkat) of the President's "National Security Committee." The final conspirator is Jamal al-Sayyed, the former Lebanese Security Chief. Together, in the words of one diplomat close to the investigation, they were a Levantine version of "Murder, Inc."

Thanks to Track Changes the Lebanese people and the world community have to confront the fact that the President of Syria likely ordered the hit on their former Prime Minister. But this is not the biggest surprise in the Report. More important is what the Report reveals about the condition of the Syrian economy and political system, which are evidently so desperate Asad and his lieutenants risked everything to whack an increasingly powerful associate who had the temerity to stand up to the Syrian Don.

Indeed, the Report reads like a crude remake of The Godfather. First there's President Emile Lahoud, Asad's "Capobastone," or underboss for Lebanon, complaining that Hariri didn't show him enough respect. Then there's the thuggish words of the Syrian President--who demanded Hariri reaffirm his loyalty and obey his orders, and when he refused, threatened to "break Lebanon over your head." Asad sounds like nothing if not a desperate Don trying to preserve the empire his father worked so hard to build but which is slipping away before his eyes. Even the supposed suicide of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, clearly intended to shift focus away from the real perpetrators of the crime, has the feeling of a classic mafia killing.

The comparison with the mafia is more than just a useful heuristic device. For upwards of two centuries the politics and economies of both countries have been run in a manner not dissimilar to Sicily's, with local leaders, or "Za'ims" dispensing patronage, justice and punishment for more powerful lords via a complex matrix of familial and economic relationships whose reach extended beyond the village and into the regional and even world economy. Most important, whether in Palermo or Damascus (or Saddam's Baghdad for that matter), the criminalization of political life allowed those in power to skim the cream off most every economically viable enterprise, private or public, within their territory.

And this is ultimately what the assassination of Hariri was about. With a growth rate of at best .9 percent, key industries losing 27 percent of revenue in the last year alone, and a per capita income well below Lebanon's, Syria's economy is in a shambles, utterly dependent on the cream Asad and his "family" can skim off Lebanon's far more dynamic (if smaller) economy to avoid collapse. Hariri no doubt understood this, as well as the drain Syria's racket was having on his country's economy. This is why he attempted to push the Syrians out of Lebanon in favor of more deeply incorporating the country into Asad's nemesis, the American-sponsored globalized economy.

As anyone who's visited Beirut knows, Hariri had at least partly accomplished this goal, as the recently war ravaged city center is once again a premier tourist, banking and shopping destination. But there was a dark side to this process which in fact led many poor and working class Lebanese to view Hariri in a much less favorable light than the seemingly universal adoration he's received in death. To fund his redevelopment schemes, which greatly benefited his own businesses, Hariri ran up a massive foreign debt; at $44 billion, it's close to 200 percent of Lebanon's GDP. And while the poor and working class have seen little benefit from his policies (upwards of 20% of Lebanese live in poverty) Lebanon has once again become a world center of money laundering, and thus part of a larger and even more powerful set of criminal forces than Syria's rather amateurish mafia.

While he might have tried to break Syria's hold on Lebanon, Hariri could do little to change a widespread culture of corruption that will survive and even thrive in a post-Syria environment. Indeed, as an intercepted phone conversation between Lebanese General Rustum Ghazali and an unnamed associate reveals, Hariri's grand plans for a free market Lebanon were faring badly enough that there was little need to go after him. They only had to "leave it to the street" and Hariri would be "the laughing stock and be pointed at as the person who ruined and indebted the country. The manifestations [will] continue until he is forced to resign like a dog."

But if his Lebanese enemies could wait and hope for Hariri to self-destruct under the weight of his grandiose plans, Asad clearly had no such luxury. In the contest between the global market and the local mafia economy, Hariri's defection constituted a mortal threat to the Baathist regime and the mafia running it. Unlike mafias in Italy, Russia, South America or Asia, Syria's clearly lacks the wherewithal to reach the accommodation with global capital that others have found both possible and quite profitable to make.

Because of this, whatever the risk that the assassination of Rafik Hariri would backfire, Asad and his capos clearly reasoned that not killing him would most assuredly spell the end for them. As Asad himself warned Hariri, "I am ready to do anything." It seems increasingly unlikely that his gamble will pay off.

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