The killing of Rafik Hariri: 15 years later aftershocks still being felt

Prior to his assassination on Valentine’s Day 15 years ago, the Lebanese tycoon who espoused non-violence made fateful moves replicated by those who sought to honour his legacy

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The explosion had the force of two-and-a-half tonnes of TNT. It ripped apart the tarmac of the seafront road in Downtown Beirut and tore open the fronts of buildings hundreds of metres away, leaving shattered glass, twisted metal and deep gashes in their once-glittering facades.

February 14 is a day that changed Lebanon. Months of growing political tensions between Damascus, Beirut, Tehran and western powers boiled over in a single moment that altered the course of Lebanon’s fragile peace.

Rafik Hariri, a man who towered over the 15 years between the end of Lebanon’s civil war and that fateful day, was murdered.

The 21 others who died and the 230 who were wounded were just collateral damage to the men responsible. According to an international tribunal set up after the killing, they were members of Hezbollah, the Shiite group financed by Iran, working at the direction of Syria's Bashar Al Assad.

The shiny new city centre's high-rise towers and tree-lined boulevards through which Hariri drove that day had lain in ruins when the gunfire stopped in 1990.

The multi-billionaire construction magnate and canny political operator had almost single-handedly bulldozed through his vision of rejuvenation for a country shattered by a long war that drew powers from near and afar to its theatre.

Lebanese exceptionalism is strange

His killing showed that even though Hariri embodied a new kind of non-violent, business-led politics, the bloodshed of the past was never far away.

Hariri was the pivot on which interaction between the regime in Damascus and their Iranian partners linked up with the Arab Gulf, Paris, Washington and London.

Up to that point Hariri had mastered a balancing act between competing regional and international forces.

But it was his decision to strike out on his own, to build a political coalition to oppose the continued Syrian occupation of Lebanon in order to forge a nationalist vision of an independent state, that cost him his life.

The rise of Hariri

Having made billions of dollars in construction in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf while the war raged at home, Hariri sought to help end the conflict.

He took part in the 1989 Taif talks that ended with a US-backed deal between Syrian president Hafez Al Assad and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to end the Lebanese civil war a year later. The country retained the confessional system he once called a “hellish circle” that had helped fuel the long war, and 35,000 Syrian regime troops stayed in Lebanon.

Hariri first became prime minister in 1992 and oversaw the reconstruction of the country using private corporations to circumvent the bloated public sector. He financed his vision with sovereign borrowing on a huge scale.

"Lebanese exceptionalism is strange," Hariri told the filmmaker and Syrian dissident Omar Amiralay in the 2000 documentary The Man with the Golden Soles. "Once you arrive you think you are in Europe. Delve deeper into society and in some aspects, you discover you are living in a third-world country."

Even years before his death, Hariri was well aware of the treacherous nature of Lebanese politics and openly discussed the dysfunctions of a power-sharing system that is comprised of 18 official sects competing for spoils. But he sought to bolster the laissez-faire economy that had made the small country the Arab Middle East’s financial hub for decades.

Lebanese army soldiers carry flowers offered to them by a supporter of outgoing Lebanese premier Saad Hariri during a protest in Beirut's Corniche al-Mazraa neighbourhood on December 20, 2019. Anger was fuelled among members of Lebanon's Sunni community who said the prime-minister-designate did not enjoy the sect's backing for a post reserved for Sunni Muslims by a power-sharing system enshrined after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. / AFP / -
Lebanese army soldiers carry flowers offered to them by a supporter of outgoing Lebanese premier Saad Hariri during a protest in Beirut's Corniche Al Mazraa neighbourhood. AFP

Amiralay, who died in February 2011, became an admirer of Hariri while filming the documentary, despite starting out despising the tycoon as being anathema to his egalitarian leanings.

The filmmaker’s shift was a reflection of Hariri’s self-deprecating nature and personal touch, on which he relied to deal with his political enemies.

The political life, and death, of Hariri largely revolved around his relationship with the Assad family in Syria. But it was also influenced by Syria and Iran’s main proxy in Lebanon – Hezbollah.

Hariri’s openness to the West and the Arab Gulf was the antithesis of Hezbollah’s role in the self-styled axis of resistance against Israel that, along with Tehran and Damascus, includes the likes of Hamas.

But the central tension in the relationship between Hariri and the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, was also about decades-long competition in the political, economic and social roles their respective Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects play in the country.

Although rivals, the pair met regularly. Reports indicate that Mr Nasrallah treated Hariri cordially and did not lightly dismiss his advice. Hariri once bought Mr Nasrallah a pair of Ecco shoes, recommending the comfortable Danish footwear brand. Mr Nasrallah wore them.

epa08122250 A Lebanese man smokes water pipe as he watches the speech of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on a television screen at a cafe to mark the one-week death of slain the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani in Beirut, Lebanon, 12 January 2020. The US Pentagon announced that Iran's Quds Force leader Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed on 03 January 2020 following a US airstrike at Baghdad's international airport.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
A Lebanese man smokes a water pipe as he watches a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on a TV at a cafe. EPA

A strategic shift comes back to haunt

Although out of power for two years when elections were held in September 2000, Hariri was still one of the Middle East’s best-connected figures.

For years Damascus pulled the strings in Lebanon, making and breaking the careers of politicians, and installing allies into the presidential palace, Parliament and the Speaker positions, or to lead security agencies.

Despite the meddling, Hariri swept the 2000 elections. His Future Movement and its allies took 18 of the 19 seats in Beirut, unseating incumbent prime minister Salim Al Hoss.

Some of Hariri’s supporters warned him that he should have engineered a softer comeback so as not to be seen as challenging Lebanon’s political masters in Damascus.

Bashar Al Assad had inherited power only three months before the September poll and did not want to appear as having any less of a grip on Lebanon than his father had.

Supporters of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri waves his pictures following Hariri's death outside his house in Beirut 14 February 2005. Hariri was killed in a huge explosion in central Beirut.         AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH BARRAK (Photo by JOSEPH BARRAK / AFP)
Supporters of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri wave his picture outside his Beirut home after his death in February 2005. AFP, file

Hariri’s election strategy did little to disguise that he was targeting Sunni voters in Beirut.

A campaign that showcased the sect’s political heft contrasted uncomfortably for the Alawite-dominated Syrian regime, always wary of its own disenfranchised Sunni majority.

Hariri dismissed fears that he was on a path of confrontation with Mr Al Assad.

Don't worry. I know how to deal with the Syrian regime

As always, he had conviction that his connections and ability to strike a deal would bring him through unscathed.

Just after he cast his own ballot, Hariri said in a private conversation that Mr Al Assad needed his connections to attract investment to Syria’s mostly socialist economy.

Over breakfast at his multi-storey Centre House residence in west Beirut, Hariri told me that he had much more to offer Mr Al Assad than Emile Lahoud, the former Lebanese army chief whose instalment by Hafez Al Assad as president in 1998 drove Hariri out of power in the same year.

“Don’t worry. I know how to deal with the Syrian regime,” Hariri told me as he sat with his then 16-year-old daughter, Hind. “I am not like Lahoud."

Mr Al Assad had signalled upon taking power that he wanted to relax the country’s bans on private enterprise. Hariri could be an invaluable partner in such a plan.

FILE PHOTO: The monument of the former assassinated Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is seen after its inauguration on Thursday marking the third anniversary of his killing in Beirut February 15, 2008. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi/File Photo
The monument to assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri after its inauguration, marking the third anniversary of his killing in Beirut February 15, 2008. Reuters, file

The price of relenting

But the Hariri-Al Assad relationship was not one of equals. Damascus regarded Lebanon as its fiefdom and the country’s political leaders as its pawns.

Under pressure from Mr Al Assad, in September 2004 Hariri voted for a constitutional amendment to extend the term of Mr Lahoud for another three years.

The week before, Hariri met Mr Al Assad in Damascus. He told Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem that it had been “the worst day in my life”, according to tapes cited in a report by veteran German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who led the international investigation into Hariri’s murder.

I will break Lebanon over your head and Walid Jumblatt's

But the meeting also came amid international pressure on Syria for its continued occupation of Lebanon.

In the week between Hariri’s meeting with Mr Al Assad and the extension of Mr Lahoud’s rule, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces in Lebanon and the disarmament of all militias.

The September 2, 2004, resolution dealt a blow to Mr Al Assad’s regional influence and, by extension, Iran’s. It singled out Syrian regime troops in Lebanon and Hezbollah, the only non-state group in Lebanon that did not disarm in 1990.

Walid Joumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, was a close ally and friend of Hariri.

He and other witnesses cited in Mr Mehlis’s report said that Hariri described to them how Mr Al Assad ordered him to vote to extend Mr Lahoud’s term, threatening to “break Lebanon over your head and Walid Joumblatt’s”.

By 2004, a small group of political forces had coalesced around a drive for independence from Syria. It included Mr Hariri and Mr Joumblatt. The then-exiled Michel Aoun, the founder of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, supported the same goal but kept political distance from the two.

The issue of extending Mr Lahoud’s term was divisive but it finally went ahead on September 4 with Hariri among the 96 MPs who voted in favour.

But the situation was deteriorating. The extension of the former army chief did not bring security, at least to those who opposed his renewed imposition by the Syrian regime.

Marwan Hamadeh was one of four ministers who resigned over the vote. On October 1, the parliamentary ally of Hariri and confidant of Mr Joumblatt narrowly survived a car bomb.

Three days later, Hariri resigned, ending his second and final term in office.

Entrenched local actors undermine quest for justice

Hariri died when a bomber in a rigged Mitsubishi Canter van detonated its cargo of RDX explosives, destroying his motorcade.

Among the 21 others killed were Hariri’s bodyguards and passengers in the convoy, including Bassel Fuleihan, a former finance minister and one of Lebanon’s top economists. Bystanders and those in buildings in close proximity to the blast were among the remainder of those killed.

As soon as the truck bomb went off on February 14, a senior Lebanese banker recalled how he immediately knew that the target was either Hariri or Mr Joumblatt.

Three kilometres away, windows shattered at the office of Raja Makarem, a seasoned real-estate consultant.

Mr Makarem was meeting Gulf investors at the time, discussing with them $100 million worth of property they wanted to buy in Beirut.

"Needless to say that potential deal bit the dust," Mr Makarem told The National.

The assassination prompted the Cedar Revolution – peaceful street protests against the Syrian regime’s presence in Lebanon that forced the pro-Assad government to resign 10 days later.

The protests culminated in a rally on March 14, 2005, attended by well over a million people, helping to pile international pressure on Mr Al Assad, who withdrew his troops from Lebanon a month later, ending a 29-year presence.

A UN-supervised investigation, later upgraded to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials.

The tribunal is trying – in their absence – four Hezbollah operatives implicated in the killing. The Syrian regime and Hezbollah, which refused to hand over the suspects, have denied involvement.

Lebanese constitutional specialist Chibli Mallat knew Hariri well and is an old friend of Mr Joumblatt.

He described the decision to back the extension of Mr Lahoud’s term as “Hariri signing his death warrant”.

“Had Hariri stood up and said to Bashar Al Assad: ‘I do not vote for Lahoud’, then Lahoud could not have been renewed in his mandate and he would have had to go home,” Mr Mallat said.

“When Hariri was killed, the Cedar Revolution was totally non-violent. It stopped without removing Lahoud, and emboldened the Syrians and their stooges to start killing our friends one by one."

A series of assassinations followed the Hariri killing, claiming the lives of several prominent Lebanese politicians, writers and journalists opposed to the Syrian regime.

Bombs also went off in public places, causing indiscriminate deaths and injuries.

Mr Mallat had been calling for an international investigation since the attempted assassination of Mr Hamadeh, but admitted that regardless of when the process began, it would have always been undermined by Mr Lahoud staying in power.

Hezbollah and its allies survived the changes the 2005 revolution brought and resisted the early calls for disarmament. Although the March 14 movement, as the anti-Syrian alliance was now called, swept the 2005 elections with Hariri’s son, Saad, now at the helm, Hezbollah took its first Cabinet posts in the new administration.

Son struggles to deal with legacy of his father

Saad Hariri, although regarded by many as nothing like the statesman his father was, initially took a path of confrontation towards Hezbollah. But without the military power and a well-trained, disciplined base of Hezbollah, he was forced from office in 2011 and fled the country.

On his return in 2015, he took an approach in his father’s footsteps of compromise and deal-making. The deal to elect once anti-Syrian ally turned pro-Damascus proxy Michel Aoun as president in 2016 led to his return as prime minister.

Although Mr Aoun was fiercely against the Syrian regime when Rafik Hariri was killed – he was forced into exile by Damascus and only returned after 2005 – he swapped sides and signed a deal in 2006 with Hezbollah. This move gave the Shiite militias a lifeline. They could no longer be accused of solely representing the views of one sect over the others as long as they had the Christian Mr Aoun’s approval.

Major regional developments also helped Hezbollah and its allies, and their patrons in Iran and Syria, to absorb the initial backlash from the assassination.

In July 2006, a Hezbollah cross-border attack on a convoy inside Israel led to massive retaliation and the devastating month-long war that distracted from the Hariri investigation.

More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and 270 Hezbollah fighters were killed in the 2006 war. Israel lost 115 soldiers and 43 civilians.

A year later, French president Nicolas Sarkozy led the European rehabilitation of Mr Al Assad – a factor diplomats at the time said further undermined the UN process to try the killers of Hariri.

Not long after the killing, France, Germany and Britain embarked on an intensified diplomatic outreach towards Iran.

In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, meets with outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. Lebanon's newly designated prime minister says he plans to form a government of experts and independents to deal with the country's crippling economic crisis. Hassan Diab spoke to reporters Friday, following a meeting with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a day after he was asked by the president to form the country's next government. (Dalati Nohra via AP)
Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, right, meets departing Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut. Dalati Nohra via AP

The approach of the three countries, known as the E3, was based on offering incentives to Tehran to deal with its nuclear programme as opposed to what they had regarded as a more confrontational approach by the US.

The E3 approach eventually aligned with the US, before diverging when Washington pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal two years ago.

Even if Iran is now weakened by the current US policy of maximum pressure and Damascus is nine years into a civil war, international appetite to achieve justice for the Hariri assassination waned years ago.

The knot at the top

The events leading to the Hariri murder and its aftermath echo in today’s Lebanese uprising.

At the peak of their political power in the spring of 2005, the March 14 politicians chose not to, or were unable to, oust Mr Lahoud. Even as the movement viewed his extension as illegal, he remained until 2007.

The current Hezbollah-backed President Aoun, another ex-chief of the army, has refused to budge amid months of mass demonstrations. Since January, he has been boosted by a government dominated by Hezbollah’s allies.

Just before Saad Hariri resigned in December and into January, attacks by Hezbollah supporters and the use of violence by the authorities against demonstrators increased. It led to a sharp loss of momentum on the streets but did not end the uprising.

As Mr Lahoud undermined the investigation into Rafik’s killing, Mr Mallat said that fundamental democratic change in modern-day Lebanon could not be achieved with a Hezbollah ally at the presidency.

“Because we didn’t remove Lahoud in February-March 2005, the Syrians stayed in power through him. Now if Aoun is not removed from power he will win and our revolution will lose.”

epa08087668 Supporters of outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri burn dumpsters and tires as they block a main highway in protest against the nomination of Hassan Diab as Prime Minister, in Beirut, Lebanon, 23 December 2019. The newly appointed Lebanese prime minister vowed on 19 December to form a government of experts within six weeks.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
Supporters of departing Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri burn dumpsters and tyres as they block a main motorway in protest against the nomination of Hassan Diab as Prime Minister. EPA

Legacy of non-violence

Rafik Hariri, while a divisive figure in his approach to reconstruction, was a master negotiator.

As today’s financial meltdown threatens to wipe away Lebanon’s post-war economic gains, Hariri's legacy is coming in for criticism from the same forces suspected of involvement in his assassination.

The pro-Hezbollah Al Mayadeen media outlet even accused him of contributing to the economic crisis by hiding Lebanon’s offshore gas reserves, although they were discovered mostly after his death.

The violence Hezbollah promotes never appealed to Hariri, even when it came from his co-religionists.

In 2002, as it became clear that the US intended to invade Iraq, some of Lebanon’s Sunni preachers began suggesting in their Friday sermons that Americans, civilian or not, were fair game.

Rafik reportedly immediately summoned dozens of the country’s senior preachers for a private meeting.

“If I hear one word like this emanating again from any mosque, all of you will be out of your jobs,” he shouted, before dismissing them. One by one, they walked, heads bowed, to the door.

After Rafik's killing, Mr Mallat wrote an article in Le Monde that emphasised Hariri's belief in non-violence.

Fifteen years later, Mr Mallat still mourned the death of a man who perished in the same violence from which he sought to shield his country, even though he believed Hariri’s lack of political firmness led to his death.

“Hariri not only rejected violence but anticipated the roots that might inadvertently bring violence to Lebanon,” Mr Mallat said.

“In that sense, he was an extraordinary man and of a quality that is Gandhi.”