A new tribunal is digging up old secrets about the Lebanese prime minister's assassination. And no one is likely to be happy with the results.
- By Nicholas Blanford <p> Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the author of Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East. </p>
The murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, caused a political earthquake in Lebanon and ignited several years of violence and government deadlock. Although the Lebanese have recently enjoyed a period of relative political calm and economic stability, aftershocks of the Hariri assassination now once again threaten to plunge the country back into turmoil.
The trigger for renewed conflict is mounting speculation that the powerful Shiite militant movement Hezbollah might have had a role in the former premier’s death. According to numerous press reports in Lebanon, citing sources close to the investigation, an international tribunal investigating the plot has discovered evidence linking members of Hezbollah to the assassination.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah attempted to stamp out the growing speculation by confirming that the tribunal had questioned 12 individuals connected to the party as "witnesses, not suspects," adding that another six people could be summoned for questioning. He claimed that allegations were intended to weaken the "resistance," a term used for the party’s formidable military apparatus.
"We have been a target for years," he said. "Destroying Hezbollah is a dream. The objective is to distort Hezbollah’s image and pressure and intimidate the party."
A United Nations-led investigation initially linked Syria to the assassination, though Damascus has always denied involvement. The shift in the investigation’s direction toward Hezbollah does not mean that Syria is off the hook, argue several Western officials and diplomats who have received briefings on aspects of the tribunal’s findings. But, they add, it suggests that the tribunal is having difficulty in uncovering hard evidence that could be used to indict senior Syrian figures. One of the officials said that the tribunal’s intention in pursuing Hezbollah was to "shake the tree" and see what other leads emerge.
Hezbollah’s lack of motive makes it unlikely that the party would have acted on its own initiative in killing Hariri. True, Nasrallah and Hariri were poles apart politically — the latter envisioned a Lebanon newly recovered from the 1975-1990 civil war playing a role as financial and tourist entrepôt for the Middle East. Nasrallah, on the other hand, saw Lebanon chiefly as the front-line bulwark against Israel and the expansion of U.S. influence in the region.
The two men grew close in the last months of Hariri’s life, holding a series of secret meetings in Nasrallah’s heavily guarded home, beginning in June 2004. Snacking on coffee and fruit, they discussed weighty regional affairs such as the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their shared fears of Sunni-Shiite strife.
Mustafa Nasr, Hariri’s advisor for Shiite affairs, who attended the meetings, told me in 2005 that the two men had a genuine rapport and shared much in common on a personal level, even if their visions for Lebanon remained different.
Given the lack of motive, it has been mooted that elements within Hezbollah might have cooperated in the planning of the assassination with an external power, presumably Syria, without the knowledge of the party’s leadership. If true, this would raise all manner of intriguing questions about Hezbollah’s internal command and control. Then again, if Nasrallah had known of the plot against Hariri but was powerless to intervene, what thoughts must have gone through his mind when the two of them met in his headquarters for their convivial chats?
Hezbollah circles have been abuzz with speculation in recent days over the tribunal’s intentions. There is a universal belief among Hezbollah cadres and their supporters that the tribunal is being manipulated by the United States to attack the party.
Recent conversations with two Hezbollah military unit commanders suggest that mitigating the potential fallout from the tribunal’s investigation has become a top priority for the party. The two commanders agreed that before Israel can be confronted, Hezbollah has to ensure that it will not be "stabbed in the back" by its Lebanese opponents. This requires building a political and public consensus in Lebanon to block the tribunal from moving against Hezbollah, they said.
Any domestic attempts to take advantage of the tribunal to weaken Hezbollah would be "slapped down," they said. They also refused to rule out the possibility of a show of force on the streets, as occurred in May 2008 when Hezbollah overran the mainly Sunni western half of Beirut following an attempt by the U.S.-backed Lebanese government to shut down the party’s private military communications network.
For now, however, Hezbollah has limited its response to denying any involvement in Hariri’s murder and questioning the tribunal’s credibility. On Wednesday night, Nasrallah accused the tribunal of leaking information implicating Hezbollah, warning that if the leaks continue he might halt his cooperation with the investigation.
Last week, the office of Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, said it took "strong exception" to allegations that it was deliberately leaking information to the media. Yet it is no secret that some Western officials are given periodic briefings on the tribunal’s work, allowing them insights into the investigation’s direction, if not all the key details. It can be safely assumed that the Syrian and Iranian governments do not receive the same courtesy.
Such briefings and leaks (authorized or not) make it easier for critics to challenge the credibility of the tribunal. Since its inception, the tribunal has had to defend itself against accusations that it is a political instrument, serving the interests of the United States and France under the respective leaderships of former President George W. Bush and former French President Jacques Chirac. The two countries supported Lebanon’s call for an international investigation into the Hariri murder because it would pressure Syria, the prime suspect. If Israel had been the chief suspect, there never would have been an international investigation and tribunal.
But political calculations in the Middle East have changed since 2005, and there are no guarantees that the outcome of the investigation will be to the liking of the powers that supported it in the first place. Saudi Arabia and France have recently patched up their differences with Syria, and Washington has embarked upon a hesitant re-engagement with Damascus. Syrian influence in Lebanon has steadily returned, causing the March 14 coalition, which spearheaded the anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon from 2005, to crumble. Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son who was appointed prime minister last year, swallowed his personal feelings to travel to Damascus in December to embrace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Walid Jumblatt, a fierce critic of Syria and Hezbollah following Hariri’s murder, also underwent a political U-turn. He apologized in a TV interview for his harsh words about Assad, which had previously included references to the Syrian president as a "monkey, a snake, and a butcher." In a reflective mood some 18 months ago, Jumblatt told me that Lebanon could have "justice [for the slain Hariri] or stability, but not both." He discreetly declined to tell me which option he preferred, though the answer was obvious. On Wednesday, the Druze leader was rewarded for his volte-face with a long-awaited meeting with Assad in Damascus.
It is difficult to envisage how Lebanon can avoid a serious political crisis if the tribunal issues indictments against Hezbollah officials. In that event, Saad Hariri will face an unenviable dilemma. On Monday, he reiterated his support for the tribunal, saying that it was a "big component of stability in Lebanon." "We will accept any decision that comes out of the tribunal, whatever it is," he said.
But he and his coalition government, which includes a member of Hezbollah, are in no position to compel the Shiite party to turn over anyone indicted by the tribunal, which presumably would conduct the trials in absentia. Such a scenario, however, would lead to the absurd situation of a Lebanese government declining to comply with the demands of a tribunal that is partially funded by Lebanon, includes Lebanese judges, and has been championed from the beginning by the Lebanese state.
Since 2005, supporters of Rafik Hariri and his son, Saad, have clamored for al-haqiqa — "the truth." Yet, "the truth" may end up being more than the country can bear.