Syria Killer?

Just when you thought North Korea and Iran were the frontrunners to be America's next rogue state du jour, cometh Syria, thanks to the murder in Lebanon of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 12 others on Monday.

Like JFK—who was killed by the CIA, the telephone companies, Lyndon Johnson, the Cubans, or the Mafia, depending on which conspiracy you believe—a whole mess of people had reasons for a beef with Hariri. He was close to the Saudi throne, which al Qaeda doesn't like. He was a billionaire with local political foes. And he was a critic of Syria's meddling in Lebanese affairs. This latter possibility has dominated speculation so far, bolstered by the U.S. decision on Tuesday to recall its ambassador.

The recall order led the New York Sun to report on Wednesday: "The brazen assassination on Monday of Rafik Hariri, which confirmed the Bush administration's worst predictions about the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, allowed Washington to begin leading an international drive to increase the pressure and isolate the last Arab Baathist regime." The Sun on Tuesday had reported that "Syria is believed responsible for yesterday's assassination."

For those lacking enthusiasm for another Middle East war, there was sanctuary in The New York Times, which on Wednesday managed to get into the third graf of its Hariri story the important fact that, "Investigators in Lebanon said they had come to no conclusion yet as to who carried out the attack." The Post and Daily News also noted this minor detail.

But the key question of "whodunit" apparently wasn't at the top of the agenda for reporters at the State Department for Tuesday's briefing. It wasn't until 12 questions in that someone asked if the U.S. actually has determined Syria was responsible, to which flack Richard Boucher replied:

    We have not made any determination of responsibility in this particular incident, in this assassination. . . . I think the reason that this particular incident is related to the sort of—the step of recalling our Ambassador is that the incident is a horrible thing that happened that shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence that shows that the excuse, the reason, the rationale, that's given for the security—for the Syrian presence really doesn't work. It has not provided internal security for Lebanon, and therefore, in light of that kind of event, we need to look at the whole range of issues that we've had, including Syrian presence in Lebanon.

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No reporter seems to have jumped at the obvious parallel between what Boucher says is the problem in Syria and what's going on next door in Iraq. There are 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and there was a bombing Monday that killed 13 people. There are 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and bombings there are almost routine. Boucher says Monday's blast proves the "rationale ... for the Syrian presence doesn't work." So, like, the U.S. rationale for staying in Iraq does?

Maybe there's no comparison because Syria is considered a sponsor of Hezbollah and allegedly lets terrorists use Lebanon as a base for attacking Israel. But it's a valid question. Anyone? Anyone?

For its part, Damascus's state controlled and predictably bizarre Syrian Arab News Agency accentuated the positive, paraphrasing the foreign minister as saying that the recall of the U.S. ambassador "constitutes an opportunity to transfer Syria's attitudes regarding the recent developments in the region directly to the U.S. administration." SANA also tried desperately to shift the focus with a piece headlined "British Newspaper Accuses Israel of assassinating al-Hariri."

Having trouble keeping on top of all the rogue state stories? Have no fear. According to the BBC, Iran and Syria have agreed to form a united front. Meanwhile, a top U.S. diplomat suspects North Korea—taking a page from Saddam Hussein—could be bluffing about its purported nuke arsenal.


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