It was Valentine’s Day, 15 years ago. My wife and I were booked for dinner at an Italian restaurant on the main floor of the famed Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut. It was going to be a posh night out, in tune with the rapidly Westernizing Lebanese capital that we were living and studying Arabic in.
By mid-afternoon, the restaurant was gone, the hotel lobby shattered by a massive bomb that destroyed a passing convoy of cars, killing Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri, along with 21 others. The explosion left a crater 10 metres wide.
For Carolynne and me, it was our welcome-to-the-Middle-East moment. The explosion shook the windows of our rented apartment more than two kilometres away, causing a mad scramble to get away from anything made of glass, in case the first explosion was followed by a second.
The follow-up blast came not then – though Lebanon would see plenty of violence in the aftermath of Mr. Hariri’s killing – but 15 years later, when another explosion struck another convoy, this time in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, when an American drone fired a missile at a car carrying top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
What we couldn’t see on that Valentine’s Day, as newly arrived correspondents in the region, was the long war that had been launched in 2005. International investigators later concluded that Mr. Hariri, the top Sunni Muslim politician in Lebanon and a friend to governments in Washington and Paris, was slain by operatives of Hezbollah, a paramilitary arm of the Iranian state.
Assassinations, we would learn, were the curse words in the language that hostile entities use to speak to each other across the Middle East. With a single, violent act, a government or group that feels it’s losing ground can eliminate a key player on the other side, and spread fear among the victim’s allies that the same could happen to them if they don’t change their behaviour.
By 2005, Iran was already busy in Iraq, moving to establish itself as kingmaker amid the chaos that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion and the elimination of Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, another top Sunni figure. Now Iran was making its move on Lebanon, pursuing its long-standing goal of creating a “Shia Crescent” – an arc of influence and, more importantly, a supply line – stretching from Tehran, via friendly regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, to the Mediterranean Sea port of Beirut.
At first, the killing of Mr. Hariri looked like it had backfired on Hezbollah and its patrons. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in the weeks that followed. It was, at the time, an unprecedented uprising in the Arab world, one that forced Iran’s ally Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation.
But in the tumultuous years that followed, Hezbollah and Iran gradually achieved their aims.
Lebanon is increasingly seen as an Iranian client state, with a government able to govern only as Hezbollah allows it. The land link from Tehran to Beirut is complete – after Iran and Hezbollah intervened on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s bloody civil war – giving Iran a crucial economic lifeline around renewed U.S. sanctions.
Gen. Soleimani, as commander of the Quds Force, the international arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, oversaw both Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the intervention in Syria’s conflict. Inside Iran – and among grudging rivals around the region – he was given much of the credit for those victories.
Boxed out of the international economy, and with little to lose, Iran had shown itself willing to break any rules necessary to achieve its aims.
By killing Gen. Soleimani and nine others (including the leader of an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia) on Jan. 3, U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged that the United States and its allies stood where Iran and Syria did in 2005. So much ground had been lost that only the most dramatic actions, short of war, seemed sufficient. Like the regime in Tehran, Mr. Trump has also made it clear that he doesn’t care about the rules, only the results.
Mr. Trump has been criticized at home and abroad for recklessly ordering the drone strike. In the fallout, Iran lobbed missiles at American bases in neighbouring Iraq, and 176 civilians (86 of them Canadian citizens or residents) were killed when a passenger plane was shot out of the sky by Iranian air defences bracing for a U.S. counterattack.
In an echo of what happened in Lebanon in 2005, Iraq’s parliament, dominated by allies of Iran, passed a resolution asking the U.S. military to leave the country.
Amid a push to evict the U.S. from the entire region, Iran’s allies say there’s more retribution to come.
Worries are high in Lebanon that this country, already mired in a deep economic crisis, will be caught in the crossfire of this dangerous new moment in an old fight. But there’s also a certain respect for Mr. Trump’s decision to order the killing of Gen. Soleimani.
Nabil Bou Monsef, the deputy editor of Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper, said the region has been on a “path of confrontation” ever since the assassination of Mr. Hariri, one that has seen his country pulled off its former pro-Western course and into a “Resistance Axis” led by Tehran.
It’s a confrontation that took the life of Mr. Bou Monsef’s former boss, an-Nahar’s iconic editor Gibran Tueni, who was killed by another Beirut car bomb, 10 months after Mr. Hariri.
“If you look at where we are today, they have won. Hariri was taking Lebanon to a totally different place. He was taking Lebanon to the big leagues, internationally. By killing Hariri, [Iran and Syria] took Lebanon back to where it is now,” Mr. Bou Monsef said.
“Everybody has tried to restrain Iran in different ways, and everybody has failed. Europe failed. The Arab nations failed. It should have been something the UN did, but they didn’t. So, this had to be done by somebody crazy like Trump.”
Flying into Beirut in 2020 means landing at Rafik Hariri International Airport, named for the most famous victim of the Valentine’s Day bombing of 15 years ago. But as you leave the airport, the road toward the city is framed by billboard after billboard of a smiling Qassem Soleimani.
The two men were connected by more than just the fashion in which they died. If Hezbollah fighters were responsible for Mr. Hariri’s assassination, that means the killing – widely seen as having been done at the request of Mr. Assad’s regime, which saw Mr. Hariri as an obstacle – was carried out with Tehran’s blessing. And such a high-profile act would almost certainly have required approval from Gen. Soleimeni himself.
The order “had to have come from Soleimani. Hezbollah is a tool of the Revolutionary Guards. It’s part of the organization, by structure and by training,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of international affairs at Lebanese American University.
Lebanese of all faiths took to the streets of Beirut in the wake of the killing, in what became known as the Cedar Revolution, and a digital sign was raised in the city’s Sunni-populated Hamra district, demanding “The Truth” – over a photo of Mr. Hariri and a digital counter of how many days had passed since the killing. The sign counted more than 5,000 days before it was quietly taken down last year.
The truth has long been known, but no institution has proved capable of acting on it. Lebanon’s own judicial system almost immediately gave way to international investigators, and eventually to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is based in The Hague. More than a decade after it was founded, the tribunal has indicted five suspects – all of them Hezbollah members – who will almost certainly never face the court.
(One of the accused, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in 2016 while fighting in Syria’s civil war. An in-absentia verdict on the charges against the other four was expected sometime last year, but a spokeswoman for the tribunal told The Globe and Mail there was “no time frame at the moment” for announcing the court’s decision. Hezbollah has always denied involvement in Mr. Hariri’s murder.)
While justice remains remote, the alleged perpetrators – Hezbollah and its patrons – continue to tighten their hold on this country.
Since the end of a 1975-1990 civil war, peace has been kept in Lebanon via a complicated power-sharing agreement that stipulates the country’s president must always be a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. It’s a compromise that ensured peace between the sects, while also ensuring that Lebanese would remain reliant on their confessional leaders for jobs and promotions.
That patronage system also fuelled corruption that stunted Lebanon’s tiny economy, which has slid into a full-blown debt crisis over the past year. The country’s currency has lost a third of its value in recent months, and local banks have restricted withdrawals of U.S. dollars – the country’s de facto second currency – to US$400 a month.
The country needs an urgent injection of cash, but both the U.S. and Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia that have traditionally supported Lebanon are wary about bolstering a Hezbollah-backed government. The World Bank warned in November that half of Lebanon could soon be living in official poverty unless the crisis somehow eases.
In October, Mr. Hariri’s son Saad, who has served two stints as prime minister in the years since his father’s death, offered his resignation amid another round of street protests, which this time are calling for the ouster of the entire ruling class. But while he stepped aside, Hezbollah allies refused to quit their posts as president and speaker of parliament. Last month, Hassan Diab, an obscure former university lecturer, was elevated to the PM’s post with Hezbollah’s support. For the first time, Hezbollah – and through it, Iran – has its nominees in every important political position.
“It’s not a Lebanese government. They have their own agenda. They are a real shadow government because they are in the shadow of their masters,” said Lina Hamdan, a former aide to Rafik Hariri who is one of the key organizers of the protests aimed at replacing the Hezbollah-dominated government with a secular and technocratic cabinet. It feels like an impossible aim.
Ms. Hamdan and I met in late January on a street corner near the approach to the country’s parliament, which was surrounded by cement barricades and razor wire erected to keep the protesters at a distance. As we spoke, several hundred young Lebanese chanted “Revolution! Revolution!” on the streets behind her. But the protesters were outnumbered by the heavily armed soldiers and police brought into Beirut to ensure the new cabinet could meet.
The country’s real force didn’t need to show itself. Even when Saad Hariri and his allies were in government, their impotence was repeatedly made plain. In 2006, Hezbollah dragged the country into a 33-day war with Israel that left more than 1,000 people dead, and the south of the country shattered. Tensions between Hezbollah and Mr. Hariri’s lightly armed Future Movement boiled over in 2008 – when it took Hezbollah fighters less than 24 hours to demonstrate their dominance by taking over the centre of Beirut.
“They won,” said Asma Andraos, a marketing professional who played a key role in the 2005 Cedar Revolution, and who later worked as public-relations adviser to Saad Hariri. “They control the port, the airport, the army intelligence, and now – for the first time in the history of Lebanon – they hold the presidency and the speaker of parliament and the prime minister’s office. We have nothing.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Sometimes assassinations achieve their desired effect, violently and irreversibly changing the course of history. Other times, the act has backfired, leading to unforeseen consequences.
The Baathist regime established by Mr. al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was one of the most practiced at using assassination to achieve its foreign-policy aims. The 1982 killing of Lebanon’s president-elect, Bachir Gemayel, put an end to the possibility that Lebanon might make peace with neighbouring Israel, and pulled the country firmly into Syria’s orbit. For the next two decades, Syria used fear – spread through occasional assassinations of key figures who opposed it – to maintain its hold over its smaller neighbour.
In 1995, a right-wing Israeli extremist opposed to the Oslo peace process killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. The slaying was condemned around the world, but set in motion a chain of events that propelled Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing nationalist, to the prime minister’s office. Last month, Mr. Netanyahu stood beaming beside Mr. Trump as the U.S. President unveiled a vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that – unlike the Oslo accords – would meet nearly all of the demands of Israel’s political right.
Other assassinations have boomeranged on the perpetrator. In 1992, Israel thought it had dealt Hezbollah a mortal blow by killing the group’s leader, Abbas al-Musawi, when helicopters attacked his motorcade as it drove through south Lebanon. But the blowback proved fierce.
A month later, 29 people were killed when a suicide bomber drove a truck into the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, an attack Hezbollah said was revenge for the death of their leader. Hezbollah would also grow dramatically in size and power under Mr. al-Musawi’s successor, Hassan Nasrallah.
“The Israelis felt like the assassination was a mistake, in hindsight,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In the aftermath, Israel stayed away from targeting senior Hezbollah figures until 2008, when Imad Mughniyeh, Mr. Nasrallah’s second-in-command, was killed in a joint CIA-Mossad operation in Damascus.
Mr. Mughniyeh was a figure at the centre of much of the mayhem that is still reverberating through the region. He was the man Hezbollah tasked with getting revenge for Mr. al-Musawi’s murder, and he was on the Israeli hit list because of his role in the Buenos Aires embassy attack.
More than a decade later, many believe that it was Mr. Mughniyeh whom Gen. Soleimani trusted to oversee the killing of Mr. Hariri. Both the alleged commander of the operation, Mr. Badreddine, and the operative accused of personally overseeing the attack, Salim Ayyash, were brothers-in-law of Mr. Mughniyeh.
But killing Mr. Mughniyeh didn’t change the behaviour of Hezbollah or its backers in Damascus and Tehran. And Gen. Soleimani’s assassination has thus far only caused Iran to escalate its region-wide push to drive the United States out of the Middle East.
“Assassinations have an immediate effect, but then they often have a whole myriad of after-effects that don’t go the way the culprit wanted,” said Mr. Blanford at the Atlantic Council.
Nadim Gemayel was four months old when his father Bachir was assassinated in 1982. In an interview at the office of the right-wing Christian party that his father founded, he said he felt a burst of optimism when he heard that Gen. Soleimani had been killed. Assassinations, Mr. Gemayel said, were “the language that Iran understands.”
But when Mr. Trump chose not to retaliate for the subsequent Iranian missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, Mr. Gemayel began to worry that the assassination would rebound against U.S. allies in the region. “My first reaction was: Whoa, a new era is starting ... someone understood there is a takeover of the Middle East by Iran, and they’re coming to free the Middle East,” Mr. Gemayel said, sitting beneath a giant portrait of his father. “But up to now, it appears there is no such plan. If there is no plan to continue what [the Trump administration] started, the Iranians will come even stronger and harder in all the Middle East.”
If Iran’s push to shape the region began with the killing of Mr. Hariri, the main battle is being fought – and is on the verge of being won by Tehran and its allies – in neighbouring Syria.
While Lebanon’s 2005 uprising failed to reach all its aims, its main achievement – forcing Syria to withdraw its army from the country – was at the time a stunning example of people power winning out over an Arab autocrat. Six years later, the Lebanese example was often cited as inspiration for the Arab Spring revolutions that rippled across the region, toppling dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In early 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria, and within a year Mr. Assad’s regime, which is dominated by followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam, looked on the verge of defeat, having lost vast swaths of the country’s territory to armed opposition groups, most of them Sunni Muslim. In Beirut, there was optimism that the defeat of Mr. Assad – and the rise of some kind of democracy next door – would revive the faded Cedar Revolution. If nothing else, the collapse of the Assad regime would cut off the main route through which Iran supplied money and weapons to Hezbollah.
Realizing what was at stake, Hezbollah gradually deployed more and more fighters into Syria to bolster Mr. Assad’s sagging forces. Iran sent Shia militiamen from all over the Middle East to join the fight.
Events in Syria would prove that a decision not to act can be as fraught with implications as a rash move.
While Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, rhetorically supported the Arab Spring uprisings, he was averse to using U.S. military power to support them. Mr. Obama said that his “red line” would be if the Assad regime resorted to using banned chemical weapons.
Mr. Assad’s forces were found to have first used sarin gas against their opponents in the fall of 2013, and then repeatedly afterwards when Mr. Obama didn’t deliver on the threatened military retribution.
As the U.S. hesitated, Russian President Vladimir Putin waded into the fray in 2015, deploying his country’s air force to Syria – an ally of Russia’s since Soviet times – and decisively tipping the battle in the favour of Mr. Assad’s forces.
By 2018, the war for Syria was largely over, and Hezbollah was triumphantly bringing its fighters back to Lebanon. Once again, those that had killed Mr. Hariri were celebrating, and those who hoped to see change in the Middle East were on the retreat.
“We’d be in a very different situation” if Mr. Assad’s regime had been defeated in Syria, said Mr. Bou Monsef, the an-Nahar editor. “I’m not saying everybody would be [pro-Western], but there would have been a revival. We could have become independent as a state. Neither Lebanon nor Syria has a future at the moment. It’s being destroyed.”
The hopes of the Cedar Revolution were undone through relentless, targeted violence.
In June, 2005, just five weeks after Syria was forced to withdraw its soldiers from Lebanon, a Beirut car bomb killed journalist Samir Kassir, a frequent contributor to an-Nahar and a prominent critic of Syria and Hezbollah. Six months later, his former editor, Mr. Tueni, who had left the country for safety reasons following Mr. Kassir’s assassination, was killed by another car bomb on the day he returned to Beirut. Eleven months after that, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, the nephew of Bachir Gemayel and cousin of Nadim, was shot dead by a group of gunmen.
In all, 23 people were killed – and several other prominent politicians and journalists barely survived – in a string of a dozen attacks that sowed fear into the soil of the Cedar uprising. Last fall, prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon said it had enough evidence to charge the same Hezbollah network in three of the attacks. The other cases remained unsolved.
Today, similar tactics are being used to sap the energy of the protests in Iraq. Like today’s anti-government protests in Lebanon, the Iraqi demonstrations began last fall as a youthful and non-sectarian movement, fuelled by anger over economic stagnation, corruption and Iran’s influence over the Iraqi government. The protesters gained a major victory in November when Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an ally of Iran, was forced to resign. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have continued to take to the streets following the appointment of a new government headed by a less sectarian leader, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi. Their demand is a completely new political system.
As in Beirut 15 years ago, the initially peaceful protests have been undercut by a campaign of targeted bloodshed. On Oct. 2, 2019, the day after the first mass protests in Baghdad, gunmen entered the home of husband-and-wife activists Hussein Adel al-Madani, 25, and Sara Talib, 24, who was seven months pregnant, and shot the couple dead.
Violence has escalated dramatically since then, and more than 500 people have been killed in the continuing unrest, including at least six other targeted killings of activists and journalists. Much of the violence has been attributed to the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. (The military commander of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the same Jan. 3 airstrike as Gen. Soleimani.)
Iraqi activists, many of whom are just as critical of the United States as they are of Iran, bemoan that their grassroots movement has been dragged into the middle of the region-wide proxy war.
But for Iran, which has also seen a wave of anti-regime demonstrations at home, the struggles for Baghdad and Beirut are existential. The Iraqi and Lebanese protesters’ demands for a new political order are a threat to Tehran, which wields its influence through the existing sectarian system. Iran sees a U.S. plot in the simultaneous protests across the region.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which began in 2018 with the reimposition of sanctions, has been called “economic war” by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Blocked from selling all but a fraction of its oil production, the country’s economy shrank more than 7 per cent last year, and is expected to contract again in 2020.
While Iran and the U.S. backed away from open conflict in the tense first days of January, Tehran and its allies remain on war footing. “Ejecting American troops from the region – that will be the long-term response,” said Amal Saad, a Lebanese political analyst who studies Hezbollah.
Ms. Saad said there was “popular outrage” among “resistance supporters” across the region, a situation she likened to 2005, when anger over the killing of Mr. Hariri among pro-Western Lebanese forced Syria to withdraw its soldiers. “But the Americans are refusing to leave. That’s the big difference.”
In other words, the fallout from Gen. Soleimani’s assassination is far from over. No one knows what Iran and its allies might do next, or how Mr. Trump will react to the next escalation. Meanwhile, Lebanon and the region remain on tenterhooks – knowing from sad experience that one explosion is almost always followed by another.