(photo credit: REUTERS)
A top Lebanese official told the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague on Monday that Syria had blocked Lebanon from engaging in peace talks with Israel.
Marwan Hamade, a Lebanese parliament member, former minister, and close ally of assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, made the statement in testifying against Hariri’s alleged assassins.
Speaking alternately in English and Arabic, Hamade explained that, as part of trying to take over Lebanese foreign policy and governance, Syria “forbade” Lebanon to negotiate with Israel “before Syria was done” negotiating with Israel.
He added that “although Lebanon had hot topics” to talk to Israel about, including the issue of Palestinian refugees, Syria blocked all dialogue.
Hamade’s main topic of testimony was helping prosecutors build their case for the motive for assassinating Hariri in the February 14, 2005 bombing that also killed 21 others.
Prosecutors have focused mostly on five indicted senior Hezbollah operatives (who are being tried in absentia) without indicting any Syrian officials.
However, the initial investigation into the incident alleged Syrian involvement and the prosecution’s explanation for why they say the Hezbollah agents assassinated Hariri relates to orders they allegedly got from Syria, because of Hariri’s alleged tendency to overdo it in seeking independent action from Syria.
Hamade pointed out that Syrian President Bashar Assad, once he became the successor-in-waiting to his father, Hafez, tried to “control and distort” the Syrian- Lebanese alliance far more than even his father ever had.
Related to his statements about Israel, Hamade said that while Hariri and his block wished to normalize and demilitarize Lebanon after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah and Syria wanted the opposite.
He said that Hezbollah did not accept Israel’s withdrawal and claimed a small portion of land called the Shebaa farms was still occupied.
He added that Syria also made some indications that the “Shebaa farms is Lebanese territory,” but that both claims were merely “to give Hezbollah an argument for keeping up armed resistance.”
However, Hamade said that when some in Lebanon asked Syria to give a formal statement to the UN that it renounced its well-known claims to the Shebaa farms as Syrian territory, Syria declined.
This, said Hamade, proved his point that Syria actually still claimed Shebaa farms for itself, but made enough indirect support for Hezbollah’s claims on the land to help Hezbollah keep its arms.
Hamade’s other testimony gave numerous examples of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, including forcing Hariri, while still prime minister, to appoint twothirds of his cabinet to include people who would rubber stamp Syrian wishes on Lebanese policy over Lebanon’s interests.
The new evidence on Syria’s involvement started after the tribunal’s Friday decision to allow it as part of the proceedings.
Because the case is against five senior Hezbollah operatives for killing its former Sunni leader, it essentially pits the country’s Shiites against its Sunnis in a region where the two sides are already at loggerheads or outright war.
Until now, the prosecution had carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria, trying to avoid further controversy and diplomatic opposition from Syria’s supporters, and it did not explain the reason for the timing of its change in strategy.
Assad has lost considerable standing in much of the world over the course of the ongoing Syrian civil war and is not as strong politically as he was when the trial started. He is fighting for survival after nearly four years of civil war.
The trial started in January, garnering massive international interest. It is broadcast in English, Arabic, and French.
Initially, it involved four previously announced defendants – Mustafa Amine Badreddine (a relative of the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh), Salim Ayyash, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, and Sassad Hassan Sabra. Eventually Hassan Habib Merhi was added as a defendant.