The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005, casts a long shadow over Lebanon. Five and a half years later, the investigation into his killing remains an explosive political issue in the country. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), an international body set up in March 2009 to investigate Hariri’s death, is likely to report its findings by the end of the year, and it may seek to indict those it holds responsible for the killing. If members of Hezbollah are indicted, the Lebanese militant group’s response could severely undermine general stability in Lebanon and may lead to large-scale domestic conflict, an outcome that would cause great harm to U.S. interests.

Lebanon has rapidly deteriorated since the popular uprising against Syria in March 2005, following Hariri’s assassination. One million Lebanese people -- the so-called March 14 movement, led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader and Lebanon’s current prime minister -- took to the streets of Beirut, helping to put an end to Syria’s 30-year military presence and political domination of Lebanon. It was a genuine, spontaneous, and unique display of Lebanese solidarity. Hariri’s death, though tragic, seemed to encourage Lebanon to assert its independence and identity as a democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian political systems.

During that turbulent transitional period, the United States championed the country’s cause both verbally and practically. Washington pressured Syria to leave Lebanon, helped jump-start a UN-led tribunal to try Hariri’s killers, and increased financial and military assistance to Beirut. Then U.S. President George W. Bush stated that Lebanon could serve as a democratic bellwether for the Middle East, declaring on March 8, 2005, that “if Lebanon is successful [as a democratic experiment], it is going to ring the door of every Arab regime.”

But now, free-minded Lebanese are depressed. Talk of democratic revival has been replaced with gloomy scenarios of a return to civil war. To the United States, as well as the March 14 bloc, the UN investigation into Hariri’s murder represented the first step in solidifying Lebanon’s newfound freedom. The tribunal appeared to make a strong start, focusing on accusations that Syria had the motive, means, and opportunity to kill Hariri. Yet after discovering a stream of compelling evidence against Syria and Syria-appointed officials, the investigation became bogged down. Syria and its Lebanese allies -- including the pro-Iranian Hezbollah -- sought to block the tribunal, fearing its potential indictments and their repercussions and perceiving the international institution as a U.S. and Israeli tool to contain Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon.

Hezbollah has made clear from the beginning its objection to non-Lebanese inquiries into Hariri’s death, withdrawing from the Lebanese cabinet in November 2006 to prevent the establishment of an international tribunal. Hezbollah’s withdrawal sparked an 18-month political crisis, pushing Lebanon to the brink of renewed civil war and ending only after Lebanese politicians, under the patronage of Qatar, signed the May 2008 Doha agreement, which elected Lebanese army commander Michel Suleiman as the country’s new president, granted Hezbollah veto powers in the cabinet, and adjusted electoral laws.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said this past July that he expects members of Hezbollah to be indicted in connection with Hariri’s assassination. Nasrallah restated his opposition to the STL in August, when he argued in a widely televised press conference that Israel could have killed Hariri, presenting what he alleged was Israeli surveillance footage, intercepted by Hezbollah, of the assassination site. Nasrallah intended this information to cast further doubt on the tribunal’s investigation and potentially derail its findings. As such, Nasrallah will categorically refuse any decision by the tribunal to implicate his group.

Indeed, Hezbollah will not stop pressuring Saad Hariri until he ends his support for the tribunal. But Hariri and his allies, including Saudi Arabia, have invested a great deal of political capital in the tribunal’s success. Conceding it to Hezbollah would greatly marginalize Hariri and his faction and effectively hand the country over to Hezbollah. At stake in the tribunal, then, is the balance of power between Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon and broader stability in the Middle East.

How could all of Lebanon’s accomplishments since 2005, to which Washington contributed, be so quickly undone? The United States is partly to blame for the situation, having made several mistakes itself in Lebanon over the past few years -- most significantly, demonstrating reluctance to intervene promptly and forcefully to prevent Israel from using excessive military force against Lebanon during its summer 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. Not only did Israel’s military campaign fail to enhance Israeli security -- a primary American concern -- but it strengthened Hezbollah and undermined the pro-American Lebanese government then led by Fouad Siniora.

But the United States is not solely to blame for Lebanon’s current predicament. After all, it is Saad Hariri and his Saudi allies who allowed Syria to reenter Lebanon as part of an ambitious plan to restrain Hezbollah and Iran. Hariri and Saudi Arabia reasoned that Syria would be uneasy with a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and offered renewed Syrian hegemony over Beirut in return for Damascus’s cooperation in containing Hezbollah’s power through the tribunal. But while Syria is indeed interested in consolidating its return to Lebanon, it is not willing to go so far as to cripple Hezbollah -- because the group can be relied on militarily in the event of war with Israel -- and damage its strategic partnership with Iran.

Busy trying to secure Iraq and stabilize Afghanistan, and unenthusiastic about promoting democracy in the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama rarely evokes Lebanon in his Middle East speeches and does not call on Syria to end its meddling in Lebanese affairs. His administration can barely convince Congress to continue providing military and technical assistance to Lebanon's army, because American legislators believe that Hezbollah has infiltrated it. In short, U.S.-Lebanese bilateral relations have reverted to the status quo ante: virtually nonexistent.

Although it may be tempting for the United States to ignore Lebanon’s problems, it would do so at its own peril. From the moment U.S. Marines ended their peacekeeping mission in Lebanon in 1983 to the day the Bush administration sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for Syria to remove its soldiers from Lebanon and for Hezbollah to disarm, the United States largely disengaged from Lebanon. The results were devastating to U.S. interests. By abandoning Lebanon, the United States allowed Israel, Syria, and other foreign powers to repeatedly harm the country and trample on what was, prior to Syrian control, the only bastion of democracy in the Arab world. Left exposed, Lebanon could not prevent Iran from projecting its power through Hezbollah, which evolved from its original state as an unexceptional guerilla force into a highly professional and well-armed paramilitary organization. Syria and Iran enhanced their relative positions in the Middle East at the expense of the United States and its Arab allies and undermined, through their proxies, U.S. diplomatic efforts to broker peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.

The United States cannot afford to repeat its hands-off approach to Lebanon. The maintenance of Beirut’s independence and sovereignty upholds U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East by denying U.S. adversaries -- such as Iran and Syria -- the ability to exploit Lebanon to improve their positions in the region. More broadly, the United States has a strategic interest in promoting democracy around the world. It must do what it can to preserve Lebanon’s fragile democratic system.

The United States must develop a policy with a local and a regional component to combat Lebanon’s two central problems: a weak central authority and the excessive intervention of external forces. To treat the first problem, the United States should bolster the Lebanese government and military, allowing Lebanon to defuse its own problems and secure itself from internal security threats. To address the second problem, the United States will have to turn Hezbollah from a regional player working at Iran’s behest into a local actor mainly focused on Lebanese interests. The idea here is not to disarm the group but to remove it from the regional power struggle so that other Lebanese political forces can engage Hezbollah over the future of its arms and role in Lebanese society. The Lebanese national dialogue over Hezbollah’s weapons has so far gone nowhere because the group’s weapons are integrally linked to Iran’s agenda. As long as Iran continues to integrate Hezbollah and its military arsenal into its foreign policy, the group will remain an armed projection of Iranian interests.

Regardless of the STL’s outcome, it is highly unlikely that it will significantly weaken or contain Hezbollah. The United States should bolster the STL’s efforts while understanding that it may need to constrain Hezbollah for the long-term through other means -- namely, initiating a strategic dialogue with Iran. Back in 2003, the Iranians privately offered to discuss matters related to Hezbollah with the United States in return for undisclosed security guarantees, but the Bush administration chose to ignore them. If U.S.-Iranian talks do take place, U.S. officials should seize the opportunity to discover what the Iranians would ask for in exchange for Tehran discontinuing its weapons shipments to Hezbollah, and retiring the group’s regional role. Perhaps the Iranians’ 2003 offer no longer holds, but it is worth knowing. Diluting Hezbollah’s military capability would not only promote U.S. interests and Israeli security but also place Lebanon on a firm path to democratic consolidation. The logic is straightforward: the less Saad Hariri is worried about Hezbollah, the less he will feel the need to seek Damascus’ help and, in turn, extinguish the Lebanese democratic dream.

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  • BILAL Y. SAAB is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. He is the author of the Brookings Institution study “Levantine Reset: Toward a More Viable U.S. Strategy for Lebanon.”
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