- By Randa SlimRanda Slim is a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
The ongoing investigation of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri took a surprising turn this week when Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah unveiled what he claims is evidence of Israeli involvement in the murder. Why did Hezbollah decide to launch this campaign now, since media reports suggesting that the indictment might implicate Hezbollah in the assassination had been circulating since 2008? And why did Nasrallah assume the role of lead defense attorney? The party could have easily let a group of Hezbollah senior leaders led by its second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, and Hezbollah’s senior parliamentary figures undertake this task. Why now, and why Nassrallah?
Hezbollah officials, including Nasrallah, have avoided talking about the STL in public since April, 2009, when four Lebanese generals, who had been detained since August, 2005 on suspicion of involvement in Hariri’s assassination, were released by the STL due to lack of evidence. At that time, Nasrallah spoke about three phases of the investigation: the first, which focused on a Syrian involvement in Hariri’s assassination, was biased, he said; the second, leading to the Lebanese generals’ release, was acceptable; how the STL behaves in its third phase remains to be seen, he concluded. In the year that followed, most of the talk, analysis, and spin about the STL was carried out on behalf of Hezbollah by media outlets and journalists with access to Hezbollah decision-making circles.
On March 30, 2010, Al Manar TV interviewed Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on the topic of the STL, marking the beginning of Hezbollah’s official campaign to de-legitimize the STL. Since March 30, Nasrallah has given three speeches, (July 16, 25 and August 3) and held two press conferences on July 22 and August 9. A major part of each was solely focused on the STL, the last of which was devoted to presenting new circumstantial evidence linking Israel to Hairiri’s murder. Hezbollah must have concluded that the indictment will be released soon and that it will implicate party officials in Hariri’s murder, forcing its hand and triggering the new media offensive.
In Hezbollah’s mind, the STL is part of a battle in an ongoing war between the Hezbollah-led resistance axis and Israel. The main goal of an STL indictment implicating Hezbollah in Hariri’s assassination is to achieve what the last battle — the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel — failed to do. Nasrallah described the STL in the March interview as a “last-ditch effort, the last weapon, the last shot…to be fired at the resistance, its symbols and its movement in Lebanon.”
Hezbollah considers the court of public opinion, both Lebanese and Arab, as the main theater in this battle. There is little they can do elsewhere since they are in no position to alter the contents of the indictment once the investigation is completed. They are in no position to prevent the release of an indictment by an international tribunal established under Chapter 7 by the United Nations Security Council. The best they can do is to ensure a sympathetic jury ahead of the indictment. The juries about which they care the most, in a descending order of priority, are: Lebanon’s Shiite community, Hezbollah’s Christian allies, mainly Michel Aoun’s constituency, and the wider Arab public. Nasrallah is the one Hezbollah leader whose appearances garner sufficient public attention and media coverage to reach large segments of the Arab publics. He also enjoys substantial good will in the Arab street.
The stakes are high for Hezbollah. An indictment implicating any of its officials and/or associates could result in a significant loss of Hezbollah’s reputational capital in Lebanon, the Arab region and the wider Muslim world. It would also risk the outbreak of significant Sunni-Shiite violence in Lebanon. The situation is not the same as it was in May, 2008. At this stage, Hezbollah sees the costs of a surgical strike to contain post-indictment sectarian violence as outweighing its benefits, hence their fear that localized acts of Sunni anger and violence might lead to wider Sunni-Shiite strife. Finally, such an indictment would weaken domestic and regional support for Hezbollah’s resistance movement. Being accused of using the party’s human and military arsenal in the assassination of a leading Arab Sunni political figure would tarnish its “Arab resistance” credentials and place it on an equal footing with other Lebanese sectarian militias, an identification which Hezbollah has worked hard to avoid.
What initial conclusions we draw from Hezbollah’s STL campaign to-date?
Hezbollah’s case rests mainly on the argument that an unfair investigative process cannot lead to the “truth” about Hariri’s murderers. Time and again, Nasrallah has argued that the investigative process is unfair mainly because it has refused to examine in depth the “Israeli role” in the assassination and is led by people whose impartiality is questionable. Conspiracy theories abound in the Arab world, but since the Dubai authorities unveiled the Israeli involvement in the January murder of Hamas operative Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, the idea of an Israeli involvement in another Arab leader’s assassination will seem plausible to many Arabs.
From the beginning, Hezbollah’s aim is not to present firm evidence in support of their claims — they lack such evidence. Instead, their objective has been to raise enough doubt about the investigation that the STL prosecutor will fail to prove his case in the court of world opinion beyond a reasonable doubt.
At the same time while expressing his mistrust in the tribunal, Nasrallah has not closed the door completely on the STL. On March 30, he spoke of a conditional cooperation with the STL and laid down benchmarks for this collaboration. On August 9, he called on the STL to examine the extensive history of Israeli espionage and reconnaissance activities as an indicator of possible Israeli involvement in the assassination. On August 11, the Office of the STL prosecutor issued a press release calling on Nasrallah to share his evidence with the tribunal. Hizbullah has promised to respond to the STL request in the next few days. It is not in Hezbollah’s interest to reject all collaboration with the tribunal. Its leaders understand very well that a rejectionist position would undermine its budding relationship with current Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri is the final decider in this evolving STL drama, and has thus far refused to either endorse Hezbollah’s politicization arguments about the STL or to accept Hezbollah’s call for establishing an independent Lebanese investigative committee to look into new leads about the murder. Thus, Hezbollah is likely to continue adopting this careful balancing act.
We are now heading toward a cooling-off period partly imposed by Ramadan and partly by an agreement between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah to have their respective Lebanese allies tone down their rhetoric on the STL. At his last press conference, Nasrallah noted that Hezbollah’s final position vis-à-vis future cooperation with the STL will be unveiled after the Ramadan is over.
Hezbollah will use this time to examine its post-indictment options and to consult with its Lebanese allies (Michel Aoun and Suleiman Franjieh) and its regional allies (Syria and Iran) about potential courses of action. Most likely, they will examine the pros and cons of a series of escalating steps to which they could resort in the future.
Each of the two key stakeholders in this ongoing drama, namely Saad Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah, has firmly planted his flag on ground that he will not yield. Nasrallah rejects an indictment that implicates any Hezbollah official, cadre or associate and Hariri cannot compromise justice in the assassination of his own father – and yet, neither leader is able to prevent or alter the STL indictment.
What should the U.S. government do? Keep doing what it has been doing – which is to refrain from commenting on the tribunal except to issue the usual statement reaffirming the United States’ unwavering support for the STL. The last thing this administration wants to do is give credence to any Lebanese party’s claim that the tribunal reports to or answers to the U.S. government. The U.S. should be throwing its support behind the Lebanese armed Forces (LAF), the one Lebanese institution that is able to guarantee internal order if civil strife were to occur as a result of the indictment. Unfortunately, U.S. congressional leaders have put a hold on U.S. aid to the LAF following the deadly Aug. 3 border clash between the LAF and the Israeli army effectively punishing the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people.
Randa Slim is a political analyst and a long-term practitioner of Track II dialogues and peace-building processes in the Middle East and Central Asia. She is finishing a book about Hezbollah’s political evolution.