BEIRUT: A close ally of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said Thursday that Syria tried to impose political control over Lebanon, including dictating its choice of new president, in an attempt to secure the “home front” out of alarm at the American invasion of Iraq.
The episode, in which Syrian President Bashar Assad forced Hariri to back the renewal of the mandate of the unpopular pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud in 2004, is believed by prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to be a key event after which the conspiracy to assassinate the former premier was launched.
Former MP Ghattas Khoury, an ally of Hariri and his envoy to the anti-Syrian opposition in late 2004, said the Syrians felt the American presence in Iraq was a major threat and they wanted to “secure the home front” by dominating Lebanon.
“[Hariri said] that they feel they are threatened,” Khoury said in his first day of testimony at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. “He was talking about the Syrian regime, [saying] they want to form a new government that can deal with the new situation arising from the Iraq invasion.”
Hariri resigned from government shortly after Lahoud’s re-election, a mark of the deterioration of his relationship with the Assad regime in the runup to his assassination.
Khoury’s testimony is part of the “political evidence” being presented before the STL, the U.N.-backed tribunal tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the devastating 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others, and led to street protests that ended Syria’s tutelage over Lebanon, a relic of the latter’s Civil War.
The evidence details the breakdown of relations between Hariri and Syria in the runup to the assassination, in an attempt to understand the political motive that lay behind the killing. Khoury’s statements laid bare once again Syria’s profound contempt toward Lebanon’s politicians and legal norms.
One example given by the former MP was a phone call he received from Syria’s director of military intelligence, Rustom Ghazaleh, after he criticized on television a Cabinet dictated to Hariri by the Syrians before the Lahoud extension.
“He told me, ‘Who do you think you are going on TV? We made you and we can make you leave,’” Khoury said, adding that Ghazaleh directed profanities and insults toward him, Hariri and his political bloc. According to Khoury, when he reported the conversation to Hariri, the former premier said “they are all crazy.”
Khoury described how Syria forced Hariri to accept Lahoud’s extension, using a “heavy hand” to force his compliance.
He described the aftermath of a notorious meeting between Hariri and Assad in August 2004 in which the former was forced to agree to the measure, saying Hariri was “heartbroken” three days after the conference when he met with Khoury.
“He told me, ‘I am not the one threatened, it is the whole country that is threatened,’” Khoury said, adding that Hariri repeated to him that Assad threatened to “break Lebanon” over the former premier’s head and the head of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a Hariri ally.
“I asked, ‘What will he do?’ He told me, ‘He would blow up the country, and blow up Solidere,’” Khoury added. “He took these threats seriously and he believed the country could be blown up.”
Khoury said he received threats to his life after he voted against the Syrian-ordered Lahoud extension, through phone calls to his wife.
He said the security institutions dominated by Syrian intelligence and its Lebanese allies failed to investigate the threats.