The Hariri Tribunal: Lebanon’s Elephant in the Room

25 03 2010

Crater left by the bomb that killed Hariri

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

On Valentine’s Day 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed as his motorcade traveled near the Beirut seaside. To date, Hariri’s killers have yet to be identified, and like many other high-profile cases in the this part of the world, it might never happen.

After Hariri’s death, the United Nations Security Council set up a criminal tribunal to investigate the murder and to bring whoever was responsible to justice. However, since Hariri’s murder, much time has past and the situation has changed. Lebanon is still deeply pained by the  loss of Hariri, but the trouble that could come as a result of a suspect being named, especially if it is a Syrian, could vastly outweigh the good it would do to know who was responsible.

Today, many Lebanese already know in their hearts who was responsible, and maybe it is best for Lebanon to let sleeping dogs lie.

Rafik Hariri and Syria

In the time period leading up to Hariri’s murder, tensions between Lebanon and Syria were coming to a head. Historically, Lebanon was part of Syria and many Syrians believe that it still is. Lebanon had been under occupation since 1976, when Syria placed thousands of troop there to help curb the violence of the Civil War. But even after the Civil War ended in  1990, the troops remained.

Instead, over that period of time, Syria had been establishing and then consolidating its influence in Lebanon. Troop levels increased, Syrian officials siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars  from Lebanese commerce, and a fearsome intelligence apparatus was established to sniff out and punish any  dissent.

Companies had to  give regular “kickbacks” as a cost of doing business. Many Lebanese who still made a living from farming were put off by the waves of  hundreds of Syrians that were pouring into Lebanon to do their work at a lower price. And to keep the machine running, Damascus meddled in many aspects of Lebanese political life, including appointing who they wanted to be president of the country.Citizens resented the sovereignty of Lebanon being trampled by the Syrians, but were fearful of what would happen if they spoke out.

Over the years, frustration with the Syrians began to grow in Lebanon. At the same time, Rafik Hariri was emerging as a strong political force. The affable billionaire had bought his way to the top, and used his considerable capital and connections to run for office so that he could help his country rebuild after so many years of war and destruction.

But Damascus was extremely weary of a strong and popular Sunni politician in Lebanon, who had friends in high places all over the world, including President  Jacques Chirac of France and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Sunni part was particularly troublesome for Damascus because the Syrian ruling class is almost entirely Allawite (an offshoot of Shiism) while the rest of the country, which is desperately poor, is made up of Sunni Muslims. Having another country run by a powerful Sunni leader on their borders (in addition to Jordan and Iraq) was unacceptable.

During this time, Lebanese frustration with Syria was beginning to foment and there were increasing calls for Syria to withdraw all its forces from Lebanese territory. As soon as the protests began to mount, so too did the elimination of Syrian’s most vocal critics. But such tactics only added fuel to the protesters fire, and as the situation was starting to come to a boil, Damascus began blaming Hariri more and more for the anti-Syrian hostilities coming from within Lebanon and without.

On February 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive explosion that claimed the lives of 21 others and left a smoldering crater in downtown Beirut, as well as the hearts of the Lebanese people.

Syria is forced out

Hariri’s assassination triggered a massive outpouring of protests from all over Lebanon. The incident had infuriated a public that had suffered under Syrian rule for so long and who saw Hariri’s murder as the ultimate insult  and transgression from their occupiers. Suddenly the floodgates were opened.

Syria had been under pressure from the Security Council to exit Lebanon for a while, but Damascus strategically dragged its feet by stalling and by only redeploying handfuls of soldiers at a time back to Syria. This time was different. Not only did Hariri have powerful friends in Saudi Arabia and France who were enraged with his death, but the circumstances involving Syria’s neighbor, Iraq, had a heavy influence on the situation.

The United States was at war in Iraq, and Washington has accused Damascus of opening up its eastern border to the jihadis that were flooding into Iraq to fight and kill US troops. There are few things the U.S. government takes more seriously than another country facilitating the transportation of their enemies to battle American soldiers, and Syria soon found itself in the United States’ crosshairs.

As a result, the U.S. put its full weight on Syria to secure its border, and to punish Syria, the U.S. firmly backed the calls to end that country’s occupation of Lebanon. Massive anti-Syrian protests, dubbed the Ceder Revolution, took place in the street of Beirut, and in the spring of 2005, Syria bowed to the pressure and recalled its troops, ending its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon.

The Tribunal

As mentioned, the United Nations Security Council established a tribunal to investigate Hariri’s death. The tribunal got off to a quick start initially, but then fizzled out from what Lebanon expert Michael Young chalks up to either  “investigative incompetence or international political pressure”. In the years since, the investigation has  languished. There has been a revolving door of ineffectiveness amongst the subsequent leaders of the tribunal, and many witnesses  have either “disappeared” or “clammed up”.

Although the occupation is officially over, Syria still wields power in Lebanon. This is exemplified in the waves of assassinations that took place amongst Lebanese who had been critical of Syria, including multiple journalists, politicians, and people linked to the tribunal and its investigation. From 2005 to 2007, Syrian critics were eliminated from the scene in a way that shook Lebanon to its foundation. And this was after Hariri’s assassination, when the world was watching and when Syria was the focus of so much negative attention. In this climate of violence and uncertainty, it’s not surprising that people suddenly had bouts of amnesia in relation to Hariri’s killing.

Still, the tribunal is set to proceed.  The court sits at The Hague in the Netherlands and is considered a “hybrid”, meaning that it contains elements of both Lebanese and international judiciaries, but it follows rules based on Lebanese national law instead of International Law.

The tribunal has been gathering evidence since 2006, the year when most of the initial progress was made in the case. That year, four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were arrested and jailed and the case seemed to be proceeding in a timely manner. However since then progress in the case has been minimal. Eventually the generals had to be released due to lack of evidence  (a witness recanted his earlier testimony) and no other  arrests have been made since.

Syria and Lebanon: the situation has changed

Over the years, much has changed in Lebanon and in the Middle East. This is particularly true in regards to Lebanon (and its leaders’) relationship with Syria. The frustration with Syrian occupation built up and climaxed with Hariri’s assassination. The Syrians were forced out of Lebanon, but the wave of assassinations of Syria’s critics asserted that the presence of Damascus was still felt and that instability and violence was all that was in store for a Lebanon that was hostile towards Syria.

Sides were taken between the Hizballah-led, pro-Syrian March 8 coalition and the anti-Syrian, pro-West March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son.

Eventually the instability itself, caused by the violence and the power vacuum that Syria’s exit had created, climaxed with the events of May 2008 when the Lebanese government attempted to dismantle Hizballah’s telecommunications system. The situation led to the first post-Civil War instance of major sectarian fighting, but Lebanon managed to step back from the precipice and has seen relative stability ever since.

Lebanon selected Michel Suleiman as president, a choice that was acceptable to all, and he pledged to work to unify the country. The next year in June 2009, Lebanon held its parliamentary elections, in which all major parties participated. The world was stunned by the orderliness of the process and by the unexpected March 14 victory. Equally surprising was Hizballah’s immediate acceptance of the election results, which were a positive sign for the prospects of the new government. Saad Hariri was elected Prime Minister.

But the question of Syria still remained.  Saad Hiriri had publicly blamed Syria, and its President Bashar Assad, for his father’s murder. Also, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze patriarch and one of  Saad Hariri’s March 14th allies, was vocal in his blame of Syria for Hariri’s death. Jumblatt was a friend of Rafik Hariri who loathed the Syrian occupation, not to mentioned that he blamed the Syrian’s for his own father’s death in 1977.

It seemed as though the newly elected government of Lebanon would take a strong nationalist stance in the face of Syria, which would only have led to more violence and instability, but that was not the course  that was taken. Instead, reconciliation was the order of the day. After the elections, Hizballah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and political foe Walid Jumblatt held a productive meeting signaling that the two sides (March 8 and March 14) were ready to cooperate. Then Saudi Arabia and Syria worked out their differences with a visit from Bashar Assad to Riyadh to meet the King, which in turn paved the way for Saad Hariri’s own reconciliation with Syria.*

*This is a fascinating example of the brutal world of Lebanese realpolitik. Hariri was forced to reconcile for the good of his country. And with Syria’s presence in Lebanon rising again, Walid Jumblatt, one of Syria’s fiercest critics, was forced to do the same for the good of his Druze people. Adding to matters is Jumblatt’s decision to leave Hariri’s March 14 Coalition. These two men should share an unbreakable bond, as Jumblatt and Hariri Sr. were good friends, and he and Hariri Jr. both blame Syria for killing their dad’s. In the end, they were both forced to make amends with Damascus because they simply didn’t have a choice. Lebanese politics have little time for friendships or sentimentality.

Hariri must have realized that  peace, stability, and prosperity in Lebanon could not be achieved without Syrian cooperation, so eventually he too swallowed hard an traveled to Damascus to meet with the man he believed to be responsible for his father’s death. With all sides friends again and on board with the new government, Hariri was then able too form a cabinet to govern the country.

After 35 years of sectarian violence, war, and occupation by both Israel and Syria, Lebanon was beginning to right its ship. With some reliable stability, Lebanon was open for business.  Money was flowing in, construction was everywhere, and Beirut began to shake its image of a dangerous, war-torn city. In 2009, Lebanon saw its biggest tourist season ever, and that same year saw Syria and Lebanon exchange Ambassadors (a step which many perceive as the final step towards normalization of relations) for the first time.

None of this would have happened without comprehensive cooperation. Inside Lebanon, the Shia, the Sunni, the Druze, and the Christian decided that it was better for their people to be working than to be fighting. And all that was made possible with the reconciliations taking place internationally, with the United States and Saudi Arabia taking a softer stance on Syria. And finally Syria, whose cooperation was paramount, was made possible because the Assad regime decided that it was better for Syria to have a prosperous Lebanon. With the Gordion Knot untangled, Lebanon was free to blossom.

Implications of a ruling against Syria (or Hizballah)

What is the point of the Hariri Tribunal? This is a legitimate question. The Tribunal was established in part to bring to justice Hariri’s killers, but with the dual purpose of punishing Syria for its transgressions that had so angered the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia. And from the beginning, that is how  Syria has taken it.

For its part, Syria has steadfastly denied the allegations and have characterized the proceedings as political in nature. When taken in context of the wave  of  assassinations of Syria’s critics that occurred before  and after Hariri’s murder the circumstantial evidence in hard to ignore. Syria had motive (silence the critics that were calling for an overdue end to the occupation) and opportunity (Syria controlled Lebanon and had soldiers and intelligence agents everywhere).

Damascus counters all of this with the claim that Syria had the most to lose by Hariri’s death, but again judging by the facts and the context of the case, this could easily be chalked up to a simple (yet major) political miscalculation, similar to the miscalculation made by Hizballah in 2006 when it decided to enter Israel to capture some troops. Of course neither expected the situation to explode out of control, but the actions were taken nonetheless.

Five years after Hariri’s death the Tribunal carries on, and although the situation on the ground has changed significantly, the mission of the court has not. If the tribunal ever gets around to naming a suspect, the aftermath could tear the Lebanon apart.

In 2009, an article in the German daily Der Speigel claimed that the tribunal was actually going to name Hizballah as the prime suspect. If this were true, the finding could undo much of the healing that has taken place since the end of the Civil War by making it much harder for the Hariri-led government to do business with the minority opposition (led by Hizballah). Nobody wants this. Also, it is unlikely that Hizballah leaders organized the hit, as Rafik Hariri posed no threat to them. Many analysts have attributed “the leak” of this information to someone trying to influence the June 8 parliamentary elections by dragging Hizballah through the mud just before they were about to take place.

The real danger is what happens if Syria is named in the investigation, particularly if President Bashar Assad himself is connected. The result could tear open old wounds and possibly ignite fresh public anger at Syria. Depending on how it is handled by both parties, the tensions created between them could escalate to a level that would destabilize Lebanon, undoing all the progress that has been made.

There is likely a lot of political pressure being put on the Tribunal to do no such thing. Perhaps all that will come out of it would be the finding that a “lone gunman” with no connection to either Hizballah or  Syria committed the hit and died in the process. The court will probably name a few individuals (likely those who are already dead) and close the case, leaving the historians to connect the dots.

If the purpose of the tribunal was to punish Syria and to force it to readjust its relationship with Lebanon, then mission accomplished. Because regardless of the courts findings, Syria has been found guilty in the hearts of most Lebanese and they have paid the price in their removal from Lebanon.




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