Pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon are heating up their fight against the
international court set up in May 2007 by the UN Security Council to investigate
the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. They are threatening
violence and even to topple the government of Saad Hariri, son of the victim.
The court is due to issue preliminary indictments toward the end of the year.
Several Hizbullah militants have been investigated in recent months and the
group’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is aware that his organization is the
An article in Der Spiegel predicted as much last year on
the basis of information leaked by the court. If it happens, the Hizbullah
leader who professes to defend his country against Israel and against “Western
interference into Lebanese internal affairs” will find himself accused not only
of having committed a crime against his own country but also of being
responsible for the assassination of a number of Lebanese political figures and
journalists opposed to Syrian influence.
This would be a near fatal blow
for the militant leader and would reopen the public debate on the need to disarm
his organization. One can reasonably fear that a threatened Hizbullah would try
to forcibly take over the country with the help of Syria and Iran, leading to
renewed civil war and plunging the Middle East into a new cycle of violence with
Nasrallah had cooperated at first with the court
under the mistaken belief that he could either mislead it or bring its inquiry
to an end. However the Lebanese government gave its full support to the court,
with both its judicial and security apparatus wholeheartedly cooperating.
Nasrallah then tried pressure and threats.
After the March 14 alliance,
led by Saad Hariri, won the election in June last year, intense pressure was
brought to bear by Syria and Hizbullah, and the newly elected leader capitulated
and let Hizbullah and its allies – the Shi’ite party Amal and Michel Aoun’s
Christian party – join his coalition and his government. This was the first step
in “taming” Hariri, who soon proved himself a spineless
Threats and fear of fomenting unrest in Beirut led him to go
to Damascus where he publicly embraced Bashar Assad – widely suspected of having
ordered his father’s assassination – before declaring that good relations with
Syria were essential for Lebanon.
He has since visited Damascus three
times and hosted the Syrian president on a state visit to Beirut – Assad’s first
since he succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 (excluding his participation in the
2002 Arab summit there). Lebanese delegations were sent to Damascus to renew a
number of so-called cooperation agreements, some of which subordinated Lebanese
interests to decisions taken by Syria.
Lebanon is expected to host
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad next month, putting the country even more
firmly in the “axis of evil.”
Hariri thus betrayed the March 14 coalition
which elected him. The coalition rose out of the mass demonstration held on
March 14, 2005, a month after his father’s assassination, and which saw
Christian, Sunni and Druse parties united in their demand to find the murderers
and have them brought to justice as well as having Syrian forces thrown out of
The coalition had suffered a first blow when, a year and a half
ago, even before the parliamentary elections, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt
announced that he was leaving it since, he said, Syria, having withdrawn its
forces from Lebanon following Security Council Resolution 1559 (which had been
one of the results of the mass March demonstration), was no longer the enemy of
his country. Jumblatt, who had once been Syria’s and Hizbullah’s most vocal
opponent, changed his tune after his small militia was defeated by Hizbullah,
which took over west Beirut in May 2008.
At the end of July, the Lebanese
president was “invited” to participate in a summit meeting held in Damascus with
Assad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had led a aggressive
anti-Syrian policy following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a close friend
of the king, who also held Saudi citizenship.
However the Saudis later
changed course in the belief that accommodation with Syria would somehow
neutralize that country and facilitate holding elections in Lebanon.
summit held on July 30 was intended to do the impossible: find a way out for
Hizbullah by diverting the impending decision of the court away from it without
attacking the court itself. No solution having been found, Nasrallah made the
startling announcement that he had “proof” of Israel’s involvement in the
assassination. His so-called proof did not convince anyone, but the Lebanese
government was made to agree to forward it to the court, which in turn said it
would be thoroughly checked. This could perhaps delay the expected indictments
by a few weeks, but not change the course of the investigation.
Hizbullah were left with no choice but to ratchet up their pressure and their
threats against Hariri. In an inflammatory speech in August, Nasrallah declared
that the court had been deceived by “false witnesses” and demanded that the
Lebanese government investigate. He also accused the court of having implemented
“an Israeli project intended to provoke civil war in Lebanon.” He added that he
had nothing to do with the court and that the Lebanese government had to put an
end to the activities of the court because it was going in the wrong
This was adding fuel to the already tense situation in
Lebanon. Representatives of the Christian parties and of Hariri’s own party
angrily rejected Nasrallah’s affirmations. But Hariri himself, caught between
Hizbullah/Syria and his own allies of the March 14 movement as well as a
majority of the country’s citizens, first said that Syria was an important ally
before adding that he would not renounce his principles and that the court
should be given all the time it needed to reach the right conclusions based on
the evidence it had. Then he asked the justice minister to investigate
Hizbullah’s complaints to see whether false witnesses did appear before the
court and subvert the inquiry.
The false witnesses Nasrallah referred to
is an episode which took place at the beginning of the investigation. A Syrian
military officer, Muhammad Zohair al-Sadik, testified before the international
commission of inquiry, which preceded the creation of the international court,
that in the course of his duties in the Syrian security services he had taken
part in a meeting during which the Hariri assassination was planned, and
confirmed that “high-ranking individuals” in Syria and in Lebanon were
Shortly after giving his testimony, he recanted and fled to
France, where he was arrested at the request of the Lebanese Justice Ministry.
France refused to extradite him since the Lebanese government had failed to give
assurances he would not be executed.
He was freed in February 2006,
disappeared, was rearrested, this time in the United Arab Emirates, where he was
accused of having entered with a fake passport and sentenced to a short period
He then disappeared again and no one knows where he is.
It is highly probable that he changed his testimony because of threats by Syria
and/or Hizbullah and subsequently decided to flee.
court, not being able to summon him again in 2009, had no choice but to declare
that his testimony was unreliable and to release the four Lebanese security
officials arrested in 2006 following that testimony. The four were known
collaborators of Syria and the assassination could not have been planned and
carried out without their help. Highest ranking of the four was
Jamal al-Sayed, who was head of the General Security Service at the
time; he had previously been head of army intelligence. He was generally held to
be Syria’s best agent in Lebanon.
MOST, IF not all, Lebanese know that
Syria, Hizbullah and the heads of Lebanese intelligence agencies were involved
in the Hariri assassination and that false witnesses are a pure invention of
However, his public threats led to increased tension and the
very real fear that the organization might use violent means and even provoke a
civil war. At the beginning of September Syria added to the pressure by
summoning Hariri to Damascus. In an interview given to the Saudi daily Asharq
al-Awsat upon his return, Hariri said that the international court had been
deceived, and this had led to a deterioration of relations between Lebanon and
Syria. In other words, he was clearing Assad of having contributed to his
In Lebanon this led to a general outcry. Some of
Hariri’s allies did try to explain that it was not what he meant, but others in
the Christian parties, such as Sami Gemayel, son of former president Amin
Gemayel, vehemently objected. An incensed Nasrallah threatened to “crucify” the
Christian leader in the public square. For once he was roundly criticized by
representatives of all Lebanese communities.
But this did not deter
Hizbullah from increasing the pressure. The organization found fault with
Hariri’s declaration. It was not enough to say that the court had been deceived,
because it fell short of an apology. Without an apology to Syria accompanied by
a thorough change of policy, there would be no way to build a united and
Explicit threats followed. Gen. Jamal al-Sayed was
sent for by Assad and on his return from Damascus on September 12
attacked Hariri. Because of his baseless accusations against Syria, he
man responsible for Rafik Hariri’s assassination was not arrested and
killing people during 2005- 2007. He called on the attorney-general and
Lebanese judges in charge of the investigation who cooperated with the
international court to explain their actions, adding that the prime
must set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the web of lies;
he said, “I swear on my honor that I will get it from you by force.”
This was an open threat to the
prime minister, and the attorney-general issued a summons calling on
come and explain himself. Hizbullah immediately demanded that the
rescinded. Hizbullah’s opposition to a judicial procedure was considered
attack on state institutions and a member of parliament from the
it was no less than threatening a coup d’etat.
ADDING TO THIS tense
atmosphere, Hizbullah’s ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun, launched
attack: What was happening in Lebanon, he said, was not the result of
of mafia-type relations from top to bottom, with the media distorting
He called for civil disobedience toward security services which did not
according to the law. He was referring to the arrest, a few weeks
his friend and protégé retired general Fayz Karam, who had been accused
collaborating with Israel. The man is innocent, he said. There is
proof of his guilt, and the media are simply distorting the facts.
that stage President Michel Suleiman decided to enter the political
issued a statement on September 16 saying that this confrontation had
far and called for appeasement; all parties should stop threatening and
attacking public institutions and the law for the sake of Lebanon.
they would all suffer.
Lebanon is today in a state of shock. The fragile
equilibrium between all political forces is no more. Jumblatt’s Druse
aligned itself openly with Hizbullah and its allies; its spokesmen
In Hariri’s Sunni party, El Moustakbal (the future), unhappy
militants vainly try to explain what their leader is doing, repeating
he wants is to keep the country united and that he is convinced that
cannot afford to be at odds with Syria. Christian parties in the
on the offensive against Hizbullah and Sayed. Somehow the office of the
coalition issued a communiqué to the effect it was still supporting the
the international court and convinced that it would find the way to the
concerning the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but the coalition is
Hizbullah maintains its pressure. Muhammad Kamati, one of
its leaders, declared that the continued stability of Lebanon depended
resolution of the case of the “false testimonies” on which rested the
accusations against Hizbullah. Only when this was done could the country
new leaf and a new era begin.
What is happening today is almost
impossible to comprehend. Syria and Hizbullah – with the support of Iran
determined to act openly to destroy the legitimacy of the international
created by the Security Council. They do this through intense pressure
threats against the head of government. Their goal is to force him to
the UN and/or the great powers and declare that the court has been
that after four years of investigation, there is no longer any point in
Another option would be for the court itself to decide that it can’t
get to the truth and therefore put an end to its activities.
beyond doubt is that both Hizbullah and Syria will do all they can to
the court from fulfilling its mandate. If the court does not desist one
another, fighting will probably erupt in Lebanon.
The UN and the West
look on, seemingly powerless as usual. As to Israel, a Syrian/Hizbullah
over the international court and a greater dominance of Damascus over
would mean that its northern neighbor is now firmly anchored in the axis
evil. It would dangerously increase the risk of another
conflagration.The writer is a former ambassador to
Romania, Egypt and
Sweden and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.