Analysis: The Hariri tribunal goes hunting for Hizbullah

The prospect that Shi’ites might have killed the leader of the state’s Sunni Muslim community has prompted grave concern.

Rafik Hariri anniversary  (photo credit: AP)
Rafik Hariri anniversary
(photo credit: AP)
Last week in Beirut, the United Nations Special Tribunal charged with investigating and prosecuting the killers of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri brought several members of Hizbullah in for questioning. The tribunal’s decision to interview Hizbullah in connection with the 2005 murder appears to confirm a 2009 report in Der Spiegel – corroborated more recently by Le Monde – implicating the Shi’ite militia in the conspiracy. A shift in the short-term focus of the investigation from Syria to Hizbullah will have a profound impact on domestic politics in Lebanon, and potentially on US-Lebanese relations.
Since the February 2005 assassination of Hariri and the establishment of the UN-mandated inquiry into the killing, the primary public focus of the investigation has been on Damascus. Indeed, the first report of the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) in October 2005 “conclud[ed] that... many leads point directly towards the involvement of Syrian security officials with the assassination.”
Although no mention was made of Hizbullah in the commission’s quarterly reports through 2009, the organization – allied historically with Damascus – expressed strong opposition to the formation of the IIIC and bolted from the cabinet in protest of the government’s decision to support its establishment.
Then, in May 2009 Der Spiegel published an article that reported in great detail on how Hizbullah operatives participated in the murder, and how the IIIC had discovered the connection. The revelations contained in the Der Spiegel article sent shock waves through Beirut.
The prospect that Shi’ites might have killed the leader of the state’s Sunni Muslim community has prompted grave concern. Given the sensitivities, since last May Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly denied the story, and he insisted on a TV interview on Wednesday that the 12 party members and supporters summoned for questioning were “witnesses and not suspects.” Notwithstanding Nasrallah’s protests, Hizbullah is struggling increasingly to dissociate itself from the Hariri murder plot. 
According to the Lebanese satellite television station al-Jadid, among others, last week’s UN tribunal interviewees included senior Hizbullah officials Al-Hajj Salim and Mustafa Badreddine. Salim reportedly heads one of the organization’s special operations units, which was run by military commander Imad Mugniyah until his assassination in February 2008; Badreddine, Mugniyah’s brother-in-law, heads the militia’s counterintelligence unit.
The IIIC interviews generated some interesting responses from supporters of Hizbullah (and Syria), most notably former Lebanese cabinet minister Wiam Wahab, who predicted that fitna or civil conflict would ensue if the tribunal proceeded on course. During a meeting with the Spanish ambassador to Lebanon, Wahab also suggested that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) might be targeted if the tribunal was “politicized” – in other words, if it continued to pursue Hizbullah suspects.
For the pro-West March 14 coalition in Lebanon, the allegations of Hizbullah involvement in the murder should come as little surprise. Not only would the militia have had the capacity to carry out the operation, its close allies in Damascus had the motive. Members of the coalition had also been at odds with Hizbullah for years, and particularly so since the Hariri assassination and the subsequent Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. At the same time, a Hizballah connection to the crime would not in any sense absolve Syria – which then occupied and controlled Lebanon – of culpability.
Yet the IIIC’s targeting of Hizbullah comes at an awkward time for the March 14 leadership. Although the coalition won national elections this past summer – and with this victory, the opportunity to form a government – the opposition compelled the majority, led by Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad, to establish a national unity government to include members of the Shi’ite militia and provide the organization with preponderant influence. Strange bedfellows indeed.
Worse, in the months following the election, the March 14 coalition, which had remained fairly stable since its establishment in 2005, started to fray as its leading international backers in Washington and Riyadh sought rapprochement with Damascus. Consequently, in recent months both Saad Hariri and the March 14 coalition’s influential Druse leader Walid Jumblatt have looked to mend fences with Hizbullah and Syria. In the case of Jumblatt, the price for this accommodation has been to apologize  for his anti-Syrian disposition of recent years, request forgiveness from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, and embrace – at least rhetorically – Hizbullah’s “resistance.” (See related story, page 15.)
Given the IIIC’s change of focus to Hizbullah, Jumblatt sensed that implicating the militia in the crime could present a threat to the fragile state’s stability. While the Druse leader has not repudiated the tribunal publicly, he appears to be hoping that indictments will not be forthcoming.
For Rafiq’s son Saad, the calculations are different. As the currentleader of Lebanon’s Sunni community, Saad cannot afford politically toforgive and forget the reported transgressions of Hizbullah. While Saaddemonstrated a sense of pragmatism by visiting Syria this pastDecember, the prospect of forgiving his father’s killers would be lesspalatable. In addition to domestic considerations, Hariri and hisgovernment’s support (or lack thereof) for the tribunal could have animpact on Lebanon’s foreign relations. Because the tribunal wasestablished by the UN, if the government fails to meet its obligations,then Beirut could encounter bilateral difficulties with Washington andEurope.
Clearly, the government of Lebanon is not in a position – and likelywould not be expected – to render subpoenaed Hizbullah suspects to theIIIC. But how would the UN respond if Hizbullah were able to engineerthe defunding of Lebanon’s $23 million annual financial obligation tothe tribunal from the state’s Ministry of Justice?
With two years remaining in its current mandate, the IIIC will probablyissue indictments by the end of this year. Given the attendant risks,should the tribunal indict even low-level operatives, it is doubtfulthat Hizbullah will allow the accused to live, much less stand trial.
This article first appeared early this week in and is republished by permission.