The Middle East Channel

The cedar retribution

With the announcement from Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah this week that Hizbullah members may be indicted for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Raifk Hariri, one thing is now (publicly) clear, no matter what one may think about the integrity of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL): the militant Shiite party is both angry ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

With the announcement from Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah this week that Hizbullah members may be indicted for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Raifk Hariri, one thing is now (publicly) clear, no matter what one may think about the integrity of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL): the militant Shiite party is both angry and concerned. Of course, this isn’t a wholly new development: the party has apparently been preparing for just such an eventuality at least since the summer of 2006 when the first media reports began circulating in this regard (interestingly, in Hizbullah’s analysis, these reports came just after Israel found itself unable to smash its bitter enemy in open battle during the July War).

At that time, and over the intervening years, the party was genuinely fearful that an STL indictment against it — for the murder of the leading Sunni in the country — might be added to an already formidable, though not insurmountable, "Cedar Revolution" cocktail of threats and weaknesses pressed by its many domestic, regional and international opponents. Indeed, more than the danger of another Israeli assault, it can be said that Hizbullah felt existentially threatened at the time by the prospect of an open civil war, aided and abetted by outside powers and fought along sectarian lines (mainly Sunni-Druze vs. Shiite). Hizbullah had learned, and painfully so, that its ultimate fight against Israel could not be properly conducted in times of internal bloodshed — such as during the Amal-Hizbullah engagements of the late 1980s — and that an STL indictment during a period of already high sectarian tension could tip the balance.

Now, however, the party has reached a fundamentally different — and more secure — position of political, diplomatic and military power, not to mention ideological coherence. Which is precisely why one should not over-emphasize Hizbullah’s concern vis-à-vis the STL’s current (purported) track — unless you are a partisan and/or polemicist and have a stake in shaping the course of the fight.

It is not likely, therefore, as some Lebanese politicians and commentators have suggested in recent days, that Hizbullah is now gravely worried about its relationship with an "exonerated" Syria. This sort of counter factualism ignores the enduring common interests that Resistance Axis members share and will likely continue to share in the coming period as the momentum for a confrontation rather than a settlement apparently builds. Nor is it likely that Hizbullah particularly fears the outbreak of some scenario of "Sunni violence" following an indictment of its members. As in May 2008, the Sunnis of Lebanon have no supply lines, little military training and increasingly less political capital in the country as a whole. Although Hizbullah has publicly suggested that Israel may initiate "false flag" operations in the future, the party seems to view even this as mostly containable for the time being through enhanced security measures, better intelligence efforts and coordination with the Lebanese state apparatus — as well as a renewed emphasis on discipline and alertness throughout its base.

The party’s fear over the STL is also mitigated by its analysis that any indictments would only further demonstrate the lack of any domestic, non-military containment tools that the party’s enemies have left. (Whether they are right or wrong about the outside manipulation of the STL in all this is far less important, I would submit, in understanding the course of events in this next period than Hizbullah’s perception of how the STL operates): "After the flop of all past options and experiences there is now a new scheme that is targeting the resistance straightforwardly and not through targeting its alliances in Lebanon or its Syrian support," argued Nasrallah, last week. "It is rather targeting it immediately and through the International Court again through exploiting a rightful, just and emotional cause that unites all Lebanese – meaning the martyrdom and the assassination of martyr Premier Rafik Hariri after the exhaustion of all other options in the previous stage. The tribunal was exploited to target Syria and this issue is over. It was used to target Syria’s allies in Lebanon and that was exploited [and failed] also. Today it is demanded that the resistance be targeted."

Perhaps even more than all this, however, Hezbollah seems less fearful about the STL because of the reasonable doubt for many in the immediate theatre of conflict — the Middle East — that the whole Tribunal process itself has sowed through the last five tumultuous years.  Somewhat ironically then, because of the missteps evident so early on in the process — and especially the misuse of the STL sword at crucial moments by some of its greatest supporters in the Bush administration and in Lebanon — Nasrallah is in a fairly good position to Alan Dershowitz the whole affair to rhetorical "death" from within the discourse of the STL itself, even if he stands under indictment, from afar.

To anyone who has ever debated with Hizbullah or studied the way that the party deeply immerses itself in legalistic minutia (true, sometimes with purely self-serving or "bad faith" intentions), it is clear that the STL process is, sadly, ripe for exactly the kind of concerted and more capable de-legitimization effort that Hizbullah will now lead — with effects far beyond that which has already been undertaken by tribunal opponents, targets and skeptics. Plus, put simply, there is probably no one man better positioned in the Arab and Islamic spheres to guide such a campaign than Nasrallah.

So why the evident anger and (mild) concern?

First, Hizbullah seems to believe that their collective indictment is yet another precursor for a war that many Lebanese believe is on its way and whose exact ends the party remains somewhat apprehensive about. The STL, then, is not viewed as the actual center-point for a future conflict but a symptom, a sideshow emboldening and quickening Hizbullah’s enemies, and their opponents in Lebanon like Saad Hariri, to gain advantage in a balance of power game that had been steadily moving in the direction of the Resistance Axis. Hariri may — if one trusts in his good will — be desperately trying to prevent that war, believing that Hizbullah needs additional factors of containment to reign in the possibility of a preemptive Israeli strike and/or a proactive Hizbullah strike. But if he does not repudiate an STL indictment of Hizbullah it will serve as a dig, a weapon plain and simple wielded in advance of an expected conflict against Hizbullah — and Hizbullah will perceive it as such, continuing to dismiss as ridiculous any sort of a "rogue operative" thesis.

Second, just as Israel views the various de-legitimization campaigns against it, especially UN sanctioned ones, as a problem, so too does Hizbullah. Even though many in the West, in Israel and even some in the Arab and Islamic spheres portray Hizbullah as constituted wholly in opposition to reason, democracy and morality (among other things), Hizbullah’s rise is founded, in part, on the discourse and practice of reason. In fact, Hizbullah views its relationship with reason as indispensible (though open to modifications and balancing surely) for its ultimate survival in Lebanon and, to a lesser degree, the world at large.

An STL indictment against Hizbullah would, perhaps decisively, push the de-legitimization of Hizbullah forward, especially in Europe where Hizbullah raises money freely (it is not on the EU terror list) and where many of Hizbullah’s Christian allies look for support and succor — but also of course in the global media and even in parts of the immediate neighborhood. This is a particularly unwelcomed development for a party that has long gone to rhetorical and operational lengths to prove to various publics — including even the American public — that it is not a "crazy" party, that it is not an irrational, murderous actor like al Qaeda that simply knocks off those that oppose it.

Nasrallah knows well that even though he might be able to effectively marshal a number of arguments against the integrity of the STL — including the release last year of top Lebanese security officials for lack of evidence, the apparent involvement of Israeli spy networks at critical points of tribunal evidence like the Lebanese telecommunication network and the "false witnesses" that have plagued the case — those arguments will largely fall flat for many in the world at large. All of which mean that Hizbullah’s "global reach" — its global appeal to reason and legitimacy — will be greatly constrained at a crucial moment of potential upheaval. While this is not an immediate or existential threat in itself, it is certainly deeply frustrating.

So even as Hizbullah revels in the further chink in the STL that seems to have come from Syria’s (possible) exoneration — leading Nasrallah to demand an apology from Syria’s remaining opponents in Lebanon who put so much energy into blaming Damascus — the party is now being forced to publicly confront what many in Lebanon privately assert: that the clock has begun ticking down faster to another confrontation, that all sides are arranging their cards with increased vigor and purpose and that Hizbullah, the Lebanese and their external allies and enemies are fast approaching a point where the underlying dynamics of a broad conflict far beyond the STL will finally force an answer to the question: are you ready and willing to fight?

Nicholas Noe is the co-founder of and blogs regularly.  

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