Fear and loathing in the Levant

The war against the international tribunal set up to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri is heating up.

assad hariri 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
assad hariri 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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 prime suspect.
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 unpredictable outcome.
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 politician.
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 Lebanon.
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.
The 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.
Syria and 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 direction.
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 involved.
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 of imprisonment.
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.
The international 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 Gen.
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 Nasrallah.
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 father’s assassination.
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 functioning country.
Explicit threats followed. Gen. Jamal al-Sayed was sent for by Assad and on his return from Damascus on September 12 violently attacked Hariri. Because of his baseless accusations against Syria, he said, the man responsible for Rafik Hariri’s assassination was not arrested and went on killing people during 2005- 2007. He called on the attorney-general and on the Lebanese judges in charge of the investigation who cooperated with the international court to explain their actions, adding that the prime minister must set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the web of lies; otherwise, 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 Sayed to come and explain himself. Hizbullah immediately demanded that the summons be rescinded. Hizbullah’s opposition to a judicial procedure was considered as an attack on state institutions and a member of parliament from the coalition said it was no less than threatening a coup d’etat.
ADDING TO THIS tense atmosphere, Hizbullah’s ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun, launched another attack: What was happening in Lebanon, he said, was not the result of policy but of mafia-type relations from top to bottom, with the media distorting the facts. He called for civil disobedience toward security services which did not act according to the law. He was referring to the arrest, a few weeks earlier, of his friend and protégé retired general Fayz Karam, who had been accused of collaborating with Israel. The man is innocent, he said. There is absolutely no proof of his guilt, and the media are simply distorting the facts.
At that stage President Michel Suleiman decided to enter the political arena. He issued a statement on September 16 saying that this confrontation had gone too far and called for appeasement; all parties should stop threatening and attacking public institutions and the law for the sake of Lebanon. Otherwise 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 party has aligned itself openly with Hizbullah and its allies; its spokesmen attack the government.
In Hariri’s Sunni party, El Moustakbal (the future), unhappy militants vainly try to explain what their leader is doing, repeating that all he wants is to keep the country united and that he is convinced that Lebanon cannot afford to be at odds with Syria. Christian parties in the coalition went on the offensive against Hizbullah and Sayed. Somehow the office of the March 14 coalition issued a communiqué to the effect it was still supporting the work of the international court and convinced that it would find the way to the truth concerning the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but the coalition is disintegrating.
Hizbullah maintains its pressure. Muhammad Kamati, one of its leaders, declared that the continued stability of Lebanon depended on the resolution of the case of the “false testimonies” on which rested the accusations against Hizbullah. Only when this was done could the country turn a new leaf and a new era begin.
What is happening today is almost impossible to comprehend. Syria and Hizbullah – with the support of Iran – are determined to act openly to destroy the legitimacy of the international court created by the Security Council. They do this through intense pressure and open threats against the head of government. Their goal is to force him to turn to the UN and/or the great powers and declare that the court has been deceived and that after four years of investigation, there is no longer any point in going on.
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.
What is beyond doubt is that both Hizbullah and Syria will do all they can to prevent the court from fulfilling its mandate. If the court does not desist one way or another, fighting will probably erupt in Lebanon.
The UN and the West look on, seemingly powerless as usual. As to Israel, a Syrian/Hizbullah victory over the international court and a greater dominance of Damascus over Beirut would mean that its northern neighbor is now firmly anchored in the axis of 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.