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Over the years, Lebanon has managed to avoid getting to the bottom of its politically motivated crimes. Its 15-year civil war ended with an amnesty law, even though more than 100,000 people had been killed, including dozens of prominent political and religious figures, among them two presidents. Not surprisingly, with UN indictments for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri now approaching, the country is finding it difficult to deal with the possibility that, in this one case, the pursuit of justice might reach a firmer conclusion.
In the coming weeks, the United Nations' Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to confirm indictments against individuals who participated in the suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others on February 14, 2005. Those indicted are expected to include Hezbollah members. The attack provoked mass demonstrations in Beirut directed against Syria, viewed as the likely culprit. By April of that year, Syrian forces had withdrawn from Lebanon; an anti-Syrian coalition won a parliamentary majority soon thereafter.
For Hezbollah, any outcome suggesting its involvement in Hariri's death could prove disastrous, as the mere accusation that its Shiite members facilitated the elimination of a Sunni leader might destroy the party's reputation and effectiveness in Lebanon and the Middle East. Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has tried to paint the tribunal as an "Israeli project," claiming that Israel killed Hariri and that, backed by the United States, Israel intends to use the institution to undermine Hezbollah's "resistance."
Facing what it sees as an existential threat posed by the indictments, Hezbollah had sought to force the now former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, and his allies to sever Lebanon's official ties with the UN tribunal. Hezbollah hoped that Hariri's sponsor, Saudi Arabia, would compel the prime minister to take such a step as part of a months-long dialogue that Riyadh carried out with Syria, which, along with Hezbollah, has also sought to turn Beirut against the tribunal. The Saudis viewed such an agreement as a way of easing a Syrian political comeback to Lebanon; Riyadh prefers an Arab state calling the shots in Beirut to Iran controlling the government through its proxy militia, Hezbollah.
The negotiations ultimately broke down for a variety of reasons, including Hariri's reluctance to go along with any scheme that might weaken the tribunal. More important, the Obama administration intervened earlier this month to warn the Saudis against endorsing any such arrangement. Saudi Arabia ended its mediation, pushing Syria, with Hezbollah's approval, to hasten the Hariri government's downfall.
Syria's game plan is a complex one. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main objective is to restore Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. After 2005, Damascus was forced to watch as Iran became the dominant outside actor in Lebanon. Assad would like to regain that status -- but without confronting Tehran and Hezbollah. Syria sought to exploit its talks with the Saudis as a path back to preeminence in Beirut; but when that failed, the Syrians accelerated a government crisis in which the tension between Hezbollah and Hariri reached new levels, allowing Damascus to intervene and mediate a solution. Assad hopes to use such a process to extract concessions from both sides -- above all, the naming of pro-Syrian figures to key posts in the government and security agencies.
Might his plan succeed? Last week, the Hezbollah-led opposition declared that it refused to name Hariri and had enough votes to bring in Omar Karami, a pro-Syrian former prime minister. According to Lebanon's constitution, when a government falls, the president holds a poll with parliamentary blocs to see who has the most votes to form a new government. To achieve its majority, Hezbollah put pressure on Hariri's ally Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, to switch sides and name Karami. Most Sunnis decried this as an effort to eliminate Hariri politically. It was subtler than that: a Syrian bait and switch to bring in Najib Miqati, a more credible Sunni former prime minister with close ties to Syria. On Tuesday, Miqati got the nod, though the vast majority of Sunni parliamentarians had failed to back him. Sunnis throughout Lebanon immediately took to the streets to demonstrate against the decision, insisting that Hariri was the more legitimate communal representative.
Assad faces risks in such a scenario. Many Sunnis now regard Miqati as a renegade for having helped oust Hariri, and his ability to form a consensual cabinet will be impaired. Hariri has insisted that he will not join a cabinet imposed by Hezbollah, and Syria does not relish having to face a hostile Sunni population. In addition, a government favorable to Damascus will ultimately still be propped up by Hezbollah's guns, which means that Iran, not Syria, retains the final say in Beirut. Israel will be even more wary of such a government than it was of the previous Hariri-led team, heightening prospects for an Israeli military intervention in Lebanon, which could draw Syria into an unwelcome war.
Most controversially, Hezbollah and Syria will ask any new government to dissolve the protocol of cooperation between Lebanon and the special tribunal, cut funding to the institution, and recall the Lebanese judges serving in its offices. If the new government goes ahead with such moves, Syria could be in the front line in facing international censure for leading a cover-up of a major crime. And even a withdrawal of Lebanese support might fail to dent the institution, since funding will be found elsewhere and the judges were appointed by the UN Security Council, not Beirut. Regardless of the exact fate of the tribunal, a crisis between Lebanon and the international community seems assured -- and the repercussions cannot be underestimated.
Much will hinge on the strength of the charges brought by the special tribunal. Its apparent focus on Hezbollah does not necessarily imply Syrian innocence. From the beginning, UN investigators have worked on the assumption that there were several circles in the Hariri plot: the person who committed the crime, namely, a suicide bomber; those who enabled the crime, presumably Hezbollah members, whose identities were uncovered through telecommunications analyses; and those who ordered the crime, which, given power relations in Lebanon in 2005, pointed toward Syria.
The second commissioner of the UN investigation, the Belgian judge Serge Brammertz, suspected Syria but never conducted an aggressive police investigation to confirm his hypothesis. Brammertz was publicly denounced by his predecessor, the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, for his alleged lethargy, and former investigators and Lebanese judicial and government officials have been privately critical of his performance. More damning, Brammertz, according to my sources and a Canadian documentary released last November, initially left the most sensitive aspect of the investigation -- the telecommunications analysis pointing toward a possible Hezbollah connection -- to the Lebanese police, which lacked the technical capability to carry out this sensitive work.
It is too early to tell whether Brammertz's failings will prove fatal to the investigation. His successor, Daniel Bellemare, a Canadian judge who became prosecutor of the tribunal in 2009, presented a draft indictment to the court's pretrial judge last week. The confirmation process, during which indictments remain secret, is expected to last until March or April, although the appeals chamber will address matters of law next month, perhaps giving some indication of the prosecution's direction.
Whether or not Bellemare brings convictions is essential -- but it is the ensuing political dynamics in Lebanon that will be most vital, because they will be driven by communal relations. The Sunni community, roughly equal in size to that of the Shiites, has grown increasingly antagonistic to Hezbollah since Hariri's murder. And as usual, regional actors will intervene in the volatile Lebanese mix to achieve their separate political objectives -- not least Syria and Iran but also Israel and the United States.
Hezbollah, egged on by Tehran, will fight to ensure that any new Lebanese government distances itself from the special tribunal. But if the tribunal can prove its accusations, Hezbollah may be caught in a vise. If the party resorts to intimidation to stifle dissent and condemnation after the accusations come out, it could plant the seeds of its own destruction. Browbeating its domestic partners will only further isolate Hezbollah and rally other Lebanese communities against it. A Hezbollah leader lording over Lebanon will represent an invitation for an attack by Israel, which might see an opening to cripple the party if it is isolated. And this time, the Israelis have repeatedly warned that a war would be far worse than in 2006 and Shiite suffering much greater. Even among Shiites, patience with a militant organization that offers only perpetual conflict may wear thin, especially at a time when the community yearns for stability to consolidate its newfound political and economic standing in Lebanon.
The choice between stability and justice is a false one. In Lebanon, stability has been the result of hegemony by outsiders, above all Syria, whose 29-year presence was punctuated by the debasement of justice and constitutional institutions. The international community has given the Lebanese a chance to identify their former prime minister's assassins. They must make the most of it. Distancing Lebanon from the tribunal in the hopes of ensuring stability can only reward the guilty, who will define stability as the permanent forsaking of justice.