Illusion and reality clash in Lebanon

Initially, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon probing the murder of Rafik Hariri focused on Syria. Lately, indications suggest that the main focus is now on Hizbullah.

Nasrallah 311 (photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP)
Nasrallah 311
(photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP)
Tension is currently rising in Lebanon, amid reports that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is to issue indictments in the coming months. The tribunal is tasked with investigating the 2005 murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Earlier this year, its president, Antonio Cassese, said he expected that indictments would be issued at some stage between September and December.
The Hariri tribunal has followed a long and winding path since its formation shortly after the murder, which took place on February 14, 2005. In its initial period, it was expected that its main angle of investigation would focus on the Syrians. Hariri was known as a defender of Lebanese sovereignty and therefore a natural adversary of the Syrian regime.
The latest indications, however, suggest that the main focus of the investigation is now on Hizbullah. This has led some Lebanon watchers to raise the specter of possible renewed civil strife in the country. Others have suggested that the prospect of indictments represents a serious dent in Hizbullah and Iran’s power in the country. Neither of these claims, however, holds water.
The first claim rests on the idea that if Hizbullah is indicted for the murder of Rafik Hariri, this will place Saad Hariri – current prime minister and son of the murdered man – on a collision course with it.
But for a civil war, you need two sides. In 2008, it was the effective capitulation of Hariri and his March 14 movement which averted conflict. This time around, Hariri has even fewer options and this makes renewed confrontation less likely.
In a press conference last week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that he had been personally informed by Hariri that the tribunal would accuse some “undisciplined members” of Hizbullah (i.e. not the movement as a whole) of the murder of his father.
Nasrallah also noted that he had received a personal assurance from Hariri that he would publicly confirm that individual Hizbullah members, rather than the movement itself, were implicated in the murder.
Informed sources suggest that Hizbullah has already selected the individuals it will throw to the wolves if indictments are indeed issued (which is itself not certain).
The men in question are low-level operators reputed to be involved in crime as well as movement activity.
Nasrallah’s rare press conference may have indicated that Hizbullah is uncomfortable at the prospect of the indictments. But his name-checking of Hariri also confirmed that he thinks he has little to worry about from the murdered man’s son.
The available evidence suggests that he is right. Mustafa Allouche, a former MP from Hariri’s March 14 bloc, said last Friday that if the tribunal issued indictments “not backed by proper evidence,” then the position of the Hariri movement toward it would change.
Allouche added that Hariri would consider matters in cooperation with Nasrallah to ensure “calm.” Hariri is reported to have held a private meeting with Nasrallah in recent days to lay the basis for this cooperation and reassure the Hizbullah leader.
The idea that a group of Hizbullah members decided independently to assassinate Rafik Hariri belongs in the realm of comedy. Hizbullah is a fiercely centralized, disciplined body in which no dissent is brooked. Its militants do not go about pursuing their own political and military policies.
It is made doubly so by the known sophistication of the Hariri murder. The notion that a group of Hizbullah men acting independently could have assembled, planted and detonated the massive explosive device that killed him, without their own movement’s knowledge or the knowledge of the Syrian de facto rulers of the country at the time, is without any foundation in reality.
SO WHY IS Saad Hariri apparently bowing before the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis that murdered his father? Hariri is a client of the Saudis, and the Saudis, for reasons of their own, are currently engaged in a process of rapprochement with the Syrians. Saudi King Abdullah is due to visit Lebanon this week. The Lebanese prime minister possesses no military power on the ground. A civil war between his supporters and Hizbullah would be exceedingly short, and would rapidly conclude with Hariri’s destruction.
As a result, he is carrying out his own slightly macabre courtship dance with the people that killed his father. Syria is quietly rebuilding its power in Lebanon, with no effective pro-Western counter-force to oppose it. Hariri therefore must bow to reality and avoid clashing with Hizbullah and/or Syria over the tribunal.
The Saudi approach in turn is supposed to shore up the troubled Arab diplomatic system by drawing Syria back into it.
Some commentators have claimed to see a silver lining in this. They depict the current situation as representing a weakening of Iran and its Hizbullah client in the face of a new alignment of Syria and Hariri, backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Such a depiction has little foundation. Syria’s return to political influence in Lebanon is a product of its alliance with Iran. Its continuation depends on the continued existence of this alliance. So the idea that Syria’s new friendship with Hariri portends a significant shift in the balance of power is an illusion. It is a friendship on Syrian terms, made possible by the implicit threat of Iranian-backed muscle. The Syrians will be happy to reap the fruits of their alliance with Iran in the form of renewed political sway in Lebanon. This has no implications for the real Iranian power in the country, or for Syria’s alignment with it.
The real power in Lebanon today, whose resources, investment and ambitions dwarf those of the Syrians, is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran exercises its power through its Hizbullah client. Hizbullah, in turn, is able to have the last word in any argument in the country because of its military power on the ground. Hizbullah and its patrons prefer to allow the Lebanese political system and government to exist, and will continue to do so for as long as they do not interfere in their plans.
Iran’s plans are region-wide, and it is interested in Lebanon mainly insofar as its control of the southern part of that country allows it to maintain the most active front currently in existence in the Israel- Islamist conflict. Syria is riding back into Lebanon in the form of a minor carriage attached to the Iranian- Hizbullah train.
Against this political-military juggernaut, the conscientious researchers of the SLT can do little. Saudi diplomacy and its Lebanese clients lack the tools to oppose Iran and its allies directly. They are therefore seeking to convince themselves and the world that their strategy of drawing Syria away from Iran is working. It is not.
The US, meanwhile, is engaged in matters elsewhere, and the administration still appears to be in a learning process regarding the ambitions of the Iranled regional axis.
It is against this background that the latest developments in Lebanon should be understood. Neither the SLT, nor Saad Hariri, nor Turkey, nor Saudi Arabia are going to break the power of Iran and its allies in Lebanon. This will be achieved, if it is to be achieved, as a result of the frustration of Iranian plans on a broader, regional level.
The writer is senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.