Lebanon enters “very serious phase” with STL

26 07 2010

Rafik Hariri

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

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced in a press conference Thursday that he expects Hizballah members to be charged in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and that as a result, Lebanon was now entering a “very serious phase”.

Depending on who is charged within the group, the indictments could be extremely damaging for the Party of God and could push Lebanon into instability.

Nasrallah dismissed the forthcoming charges as an Israeli plot, linking the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to a wave of Israeli espionage that has been continuously uncovered since 2009.

Charges that the STL investigation is a politically motivated Israeli plot are less believable in the wake of the UN’s Goldstone Report regarding Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead  in Gaza in 2009. The scathing report accused the IDF (as well as Hamas) of war crimes, exhibiting the UN’s capacity for carrying out a seemingly neutral investigation.

Saad Hariri

Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned slain Rafik Hariri) has, as reported by Nasrallah, declared that he will make a public distinction between Hizballah as an organization and “undisciplined members” who might have been involved in the plot.

While this may be just a way for Hariri to keep his ties with March 6 alive, the move may also be to keep Lebanon from tearing itself apart. If Hariri shows no public animosity towards Hizballah after the charges are released, it will be difficult for any other party to show it either.

Since Hariri took office, he has made it apparent that he values Lebanon’s stability over almost anything else. His reconciling with Bashar Assad, his seemingly endless trips abroad to garner support for his small nation in the face of Israeli aggression, and now his handling of the STL results…every move made is with one end in mind: stability.  Whether that quest for stability is out of love for his country or some personal interests is anyone’s guess, but his commitment is beyond question.

In his own effort to diffuse tensions, Sayyed Nasrallah has gotten way out in front of the issue. From political blogger Elias Muhanna, as reported by the AFP, “By the time that the STL gets around to indicting Hezbollah members a few months from now… the development will be old news, already dissected, analyzed and picked over by Beirut’s punditocracy…No one will be surprised and (if Nasrallah and others get their way), no one will really care.”

Sandwiched between “What happened to Imam Musa Sadr?” and “Who killed Imad Mugniyeh?”, “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” remains one of the Middle East’s most intriguing mysteries. Syria  had the most to gain from Hariri’s death, as well as the intelligence and technical capabilities to pull it off, but it is also unlikely that Damascus could have undertaken such sophisticated operation without getting the attention (an perhaps the approval) of Hizballah.

Hassan Nasrallah

It is hard to see where Israel would fit in to all of that. I suppose, in this land of smoke and mirrors and castles made of sand, that anything is possible. But when Hizballah takes to blaming everything on Israel, the charge kind of loses its effectiveness. Just like not everyone that criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite, not every problem in Lebanon is caused by the Jewish State. In this case, attempting to dismiss the STL investigation as an Israeli ploy sounds childish coming from a warrior like Nasrallah.

Nasrallah’s actions aside, the big question going forward will be how this news affects the stability of Lebanon and the greater Middle East. At first glance, this is an internal dispute- a Lebanese killed by Lebanese- but it is sure to have repercussions for the surrounding states and beyond.

Damascus has to be secretly smiling right now. As long as those charged do not start giving up names of Syrian intelligence operatives, President Bashar Assad has dodged a bullet for now. However, don’t be surprised of those charged “turn up missing” for good measure.

Israel must also be enjoying this moment, as there is little doubt that many there relish seeing Nasrallah in such a predicament. But it is likely that they are also wary that, with Hizballah in such a tight spot, the group may do something unexpected.

Iran cannot be happy with the news, as it could make the Islamic Republic seem to be a more active and nefarious meddler in Lebanon than ever before.

Indictments against Hizballah members could also have an effect on regional relations. Rafik Hariri was an immensely popular figure in the Sunni Arab world, and charges linking the Shiite organization to his death could be damaging within Lebanon and without. For example, Hariri’s assassination destroyed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Syria, which took four years to rebuild to where it is today.

Bashar Assad

But are Hizballah’s dismissals entirely unfair? As no entity in the Middle East has a monopoly on the truth, Hizballah’s counter charges must be addressed. While it is most improbable that Israel was involved with Hariri’s assassination, it is far less improbable that both Israel and the United States did not at least try to influence the findings of the STL.

Obviously Israel, whose last 18 months seem to have been a never ending public relations nightmare, enjoys Hizballah’s implication in the plot. But as for the United States, the situation is more opaque. Washington has been courting Damascus’ assistance in both containing Iran and helping the stability of Iraq. It is conceivable that Washington used its influence to direct the STL away from a Syrian indictment. But just how likely or possible that scenario is remains to be seen.

Though the names of those charged have not been released, it’s hard to imagine the men named would be anything other than low level conspirators. If Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, or even former Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh were charged, that would be truly astounding.

In the mean time, Nasrallah’s tone in his press conference was threatening (in text). In his speech, the Secretary General stated, “There is a dangerous project that is targeting the resistance…We are not at all afraid, nor are we worried. We know how to defend ourselves.”

Such rhetoric has been an interpreted to be a not-so-subtle hint warning the STL that it should tread carefully in the coming months, as their actions could have a disastrous impact on the future of Lebanon. Such talk is a stark reminder of the chaos that ensued in May 2008, when government forces clashed with Hizballah and Lebanon nearly went back into the abyss.

It is an interesting theoretical exercise: is knowing the so-called truth about Hariri’s assassination worth all the harm it could do? Unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, it looks like we are going to find out.

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