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Ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Assassinated in Car Bombing

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Lebanon’s army has been put on high alert after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive bomb explosion Monday. We go to Beirut for a report on the ground and talk to longtime Middle East journalist Patrick Seale on the impact the assassination will have on U.S.-Syrian relations. [includes rush transcript]

Lebanon’s army has been put on high alert after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive bomb explosion Monday.

At least 13 others were killed and 135 wounded in the blast. It marked the bloodiest attack in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. Shops, schools and public institutions have shut down across the country for three days of official mourning. The army has been placed on full alert and checkpoints set up around Beirut.

Hariri was viewed by many as the country’s most prominent politician. The self-made billionaire led Lebanon for most of the period since the civil war ended in 1990. Hariri made his fortunes as personal contractor for Prince Fahd in Saudi Arabia. He left office in October after a dispute over Syria’s role in Lebanon.

It is still unclear who is responsible for the attack. A little-known group calling itself Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria issued a statement saying it carried out the bombing because of Hariri’s ties to the Saudi Royal family. The claim has not been verified.

Opposition leaders in Lebanon said Syria bore a measure of responsibility and a crowd in Beirut tried to burn down the local Syrian party offices. The Syrian government has denied any involvement. Since it helped broker the end of the civil war, Syria has maintained a pervasive grip on Lebanon through its intelligence services, political allies and economic interests. Some 14,000 Syrian troops are stationed in the country.

The opposition also renewed its call for Syrian troops to withdraw from the country–a demand backed by Washington. White House press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday the U.S. would consult with the U.N. Security Council.

  • White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, speaking Feb. 14.
  • Michael Glackin, Managing Editor of The Daily Star.
  • Patrick Seale, British journalist who has covered the Middle East for over 30 years specializing in Syria. He is the author of “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Monday, the U.S. would consult with the U.N. Security Council.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Mr. Hariri was a fervent supporter of Lebanese independence and worked tirelessly to rebuild a free, independent, and prosperous Lebanon following its brutal civil war and despite its continued foreign occupation. His murder is an attempt to stifle these efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of foreign domination. The people of Lebanon deserve the freedom to choose their leaders, free of intimidation, terror, and foreign occupation in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. The United States will consult with other governments in the region, and on the Security Council today about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack, to end the use of violence and intimidation against the Lebanese people, and to restore Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty, and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters yesterday in Washington. We now go to Beirut, to speak with Michael Glackin, the Managing Editor of the English-language Daily Star. In a front-page editorial, The Star writes, quote, “The pressing concern of the moment is how to prevent Lebanon from tottering over the brink of the abyss.” We’re also joined by Patrick Seale, a British journalist who’s covered the Middle East for thirty years, specializes in Syria. He’s the author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.

Just a correction, the Syrian government has 14,000 soldiers in Lebanon.

We turn now to Michael Glackin. Can you give us a report on the latest on the ground in Beirut?

MICHAEL GLACKIN: Well, I suppose, that the latest news line, as such, Amy, is that most indications now are pointing to a suicide bomb as being the — the main catalyst of this attack. They weren’t sure yesterday. There was some overnight stuff floating around from the — from various police sources that they believed it was a suicide bomber. That looks pretty much confirmed now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you just give us the events of yesterday? Can you just lay out what happened?

MICHAEL GLACKIN: Well, essentially, as you know from all the news stories that have been in papers today, former Premier Hariri was leaving Parliament in his motorcade, which I should add has (or should have had, certainly it was — it was thought to have) very sophisticated anti-bombing and anti-attack devices fitted to it. None of them seemed to have helped him in any sense when this attack occurred. But, on his way then, within minutes of leaving Parliament in downtown Beirut, in an area that his fingerprints were all over in terms of the re-development; he’s very much the symbol of, as well as the political rebirth, the economic rebirth, since his company developed most of the area of downtown Beirut, which is now the big tourist hub in this part of the world. He was actually driving through that part of town when the explosion occurred; and he and along with, we think now, twelve others have died, perished alongside Premier Hariri in this blast.

AMY GOODMAN: A little known group calling itself “Victory in Jihad in Greater Syria” has claimed responsibility. What are the thoughts of people on the ground? What’s the general sense in Beirut?

MICHAEL GLACKIN: Well, I mean, when something like this happens, particularly in this part of the world, the list of culprits is — is as long as your arm. Most people are, to be frank, quite dismissive about the claimed responsibility, not to say that it’s — perhaps it isn’t credible, but it’s unconfirmed yet; and the investigation, such as it is, that the government are doing that they seem to focus on one suspect. I believe they have somebody in custody overnight. Whether it’s the person they were looking for initially yesterday, I’m not certain; but most people don’t believe that — most people haven’t heard of this group and don’t believe that, frankly, it is responsible. And certainly the country’s political opposition have pointed the finger very firmly and directly at Syria. Washington itself, as you would know, have been hinting more or less the same thing, although they have stopped short of saying it in statements coming from the White House. But, to be frank, I mean, this could be any one of a myriad of Islamic fundamentalist groups or other kinds of group, and it’s really too early to say who is responsible for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seale is also on the line with us, British journalist who wrote the biography of Asad. It has been reported that Mr. Hariri, today in the_Wall Street Journal_, saying was planning a comeback to high office, and parliamentary elections this spring, where relations with Syria have emerged as the major campaign issue. Can you talk about this, Patrick Seale?

PATRICK SEALE: Yes. The Syrians actually were negotiating with Hariri for his return to power. Indeed, there was an interview, big interview, with Hariri in the major Lebanese newspaper yesterday, al-Safir, in which he seemed to be reaching out a sort of olive branch to the Syrians, in which he said that even if the Syrians were to withdraw their troops from Lebanon this would not cause the Lebanese to seek a separate peace with Israel; the two tracks, Syrian and Lebanese tracks would remain together. So, this would slightly point away from Syria’s responsibility. The truth is that, in the absence of proof, one should be fairly careful, I think, before blaming one party or the other. It’s interesting, what you just heard from Beirut that this was a suicide bomb, cause this would seem to credit the theory that this was some sort of Islamist group. However, on the other hand, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is the leader, as you know, of an Islamist group in Iraq linked to al Qaeda, made a statement today in which he said that no jihadi group was involved, that this was the work either of Syrian, Lebanese, or Israeli intelligence services.

So, it’s a little bit early. I think there’s going to be an international commission of inquiry; the French have called for one. I think we should wait and see what — what proof there is.

However, in the mean time, this is, of course, a very serious blow to both Syria and Lebanon. Hariri was sort of a guarantor of Lebanese stability. I think the economic, financial, and social impact will be very great. There’s likely to be a flight of funds from Lebanon. Very few people will want to invest in that country. The currency is likely to suffer. As for Syria, of course, many people have pointed the finger at Syria. If it were proved that Syria was responsible, this would be really a political suicide. The United States and France and other powers are very much anti-Syrian at the moment (and of course, Israel), and Syria is under great pressure.

Now, I think it’s worth pointing out that the United States is very anxious to seal off the Iraqi battleground from Iraq’s neighbors, either Iran or Syria; and the Israelis, with American support, are also very anxious that Syria should act against Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group which has recently turned into a political party. Now, the Israelis are very keen that Hezbollah should be labeled a terrorist organization and should be dismantled. So, both these powers, the United States and Israel, both have an interest now in weakening Syria for their own interests.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Patrick Seale, British journalist who has covered Syria for many years. What about the Syrian troops in Lebanon, these 14,000 troops, and just how strong their presence is? Let me first go to Michael Glackin in Beruit.

MICHAEL GLACKIN: Well, we think the figure is actually 15,000, but we’ll probably not split too many hairs over a thousand here or there. Oddly enough, I mean, we reported through leaks [unintelligible] weekend that Syria had apparently said it was willing to withdraw the bulk of its troops ahead of [unintelligible] due to be held in late April or early May, but was sort of still digging its heels in, if you like, over the issue of whether it should have a total withdrawal. This is largely because they believe that the U.N. resolution which has called for them to withdraw their troops should only be implemented if other U.N. resolutions which have called for Israel to withdraw from various occupied territories here were implemented at the same time. This, the U.N. says, is — it isn’t the case. They shouldn’t be interdependent and the U.S. has argued the same thing, although Syria, and I think most governments in the Middle East, would say that you can’t have one without the other. But certainly, there does seem to be, in the wake of the international pressure from the U.N. and indeed from America and indeed from France, one of the sponsors of 1559, that Syria is listening, and is looking for a way that it could do this. I think in fairness that the leaked comments of the weekend were probably geared towards merits some kind of compromise in the run-up to the election, that there was a willingness by Syria to implement 1559. But I think again, and I reiterate as most of the Middle East believes that they think that to do this in isolation without other U.N. resolutions being [unintelligible] Israel being implemented would be somewhat unfair.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Glackin in of The Daily Star, in Beirut, and with Patrick Seale, author of the biography of the former leader of Syria, Asad.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re finishing up our conversation with Michael Glackin. He’s in Beirut with The Daily Star, and Patrick Seale, he is in Paris and is the biographer of Asad. We turn to Patrick Seale. The feeling right now in France, and your reaction to the U.S.’s response to the assassination of the former prime minister?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, I think it’s pretty rich about the Americans talking about foreign occupation of Lebanon. This, of course, the most blatant example of foreign occupation in the region is, of course, America’s occupation of Iraq, and the terrible devastation which it has wrought there. So, the Syrians and then of course many in the region would see this as an example of American double standards. If I may just pick up another point, which was made earlier, it’s not so much Syria’s — it’s not so much the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, it’s more the activities of the military intelligence apparatus. It’s this which has aroused so much opposition among the Lebanese. It’s the interference on a day-to-day basis by Syrian intelligence agents. Now, of course, it’s important to understand, I think, that Lebanon is terribly important to Syria. It is its regional card, and Syria has certain strategic — vital strategic interests in Lebanon, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for Syria’s withdrawal is, of course, a threat to those strategic interests. The Syrians don’t want to allow Lebanon to conclude a separate peace with Israel. They would then feel isolated and they wouldn’t have any leverage in recovering the Golan, which Israel seized in 1967. The Syrians also can’t accept that Lebanon should become a base for hostile activities against them, so they do want to maintain a degree of control, but their control needn’t be on a day-to-day basis, I would imagine, such as they have recently been exercising, which has aroused so much opposition in Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think happens at this point, Patrick Seale?

PATRICK SEALE: What will happen?


PATRICK SEALE: I think we’re facing a very aggressive American administration. President Chirac in France, who was very close to Hariri, sees his matter as a personal affront. It’s very likely that Syria will face punitive measures by those two powers, certainly by the United States, which has very great interest, as I said earlier, in isolating Iraq from interference, as it’s called, from its neighbors. So I think that the Syrian regime is weakened, they’re being blamed for this, but as I say, it would be wise to wait for proof before drawing any hasty conclusions.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Patrick Seale, for joining us from Paris, biographer of Asad, long-time Middle East commentator, and also Michael Glackin with The Daily Star of Beirut, Lebanon, on the assassination of the former prime minister.

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