The Middle East Channel

The real deal for Lebanon

It must be August. The likelihood that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will soon hand down indictments of Hezbollah operatives in the assassination of Rafik Hariri is generating waves of ominous speculation about a possible sectarian crisis that would shatter Lebanon’s fragile political order. Fears of unrest circulate in the U.S. media. Arab commentators excoriate ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It must be August. The likelihood that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will soon hand down indictments of Hezbollah operatives in the assassination of Rafik Hariri is generating waves of ominous speculation about a possible sectarian crisis that would shatter Lebanon’s fragile political order. Fears of unrest circulate in the U.S. media. Arab commentators excoriate Prime Minister Saad Hariri for vacationing in Sardinia while Beirut simmers. Meanwhile, and perhaps not so incidentally, an exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese army units provokes alarm about a possible “Third Lebanon War.” Adding to these concerns, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has now revealed “thunderous news” of Israel’s complicity in Hariri’s assassination, challenging the tribunal’s credibility and hoping to further derail its work. 

Do the likely findings of the Special Tribunal justify this level of alarm? Is Lebanon’s political order truly at risk? In fact, the odds are very low that Lebanon will collapse into violence, or that its current political order will break down as a result of the tribunal’s findings. This is not to minimize present risks — Lebanon’s political order is sufficiently fragile, and its border with Israel sufficiently volatile, to justify a measure of concern about the effects of an indictment identifying Hezbollah operatives as Hariri’s assassins. Yet all visible signs suggest that what we are now watching, complete with the brinkmanship and political theatre that define politics in Lebanon, is not the run up to disaster but the end stages of a brokered settlement aimed at preserving the current political order intact. 

This is not only a settlement the U.S. can live with but one it should support, even if tacitly. It advances broader U.S. objectives in Lebanon, in part simply by avoiding renewed sectarian conflict and preserving a government led, however ineptly, by the residue of the March 14 movement. More significantly, and despite Nasrallah’s attempts to delegitimize the Special Tribunal, the indictments will bend Lebanon’s tenuous balance of power in directions favorable to U.S. interests, placing Hezbollah on the defensive and diminishing Iranian influence in favor of a Syrian-Saudi co-dominion over critical Lebanese security issues. It is not too late, however, for the U.S. to undermine these modest gains. Efforts in congress to cut off U.S. military assistance to Lebanon following the exchange of fire with Israel last week gave Iran an opening to reassert its influence, offering to make up for any aid the U.S. withdraws. Instead of cutting off aid, this is a moment for the U.S. to step back, let events unfold, and be prepared to take advantage of incremental but positive shifts on the ground.       

The key brokers of a settlement are Saudi Arabia and Syria. The Saudis see their role as defending the interests of Lebanon’s Sunni community, sometimes against the narrower interests of Saad Hariri and his supporters, and balancing the influence of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran in Lebanon’s domestic affairs. The Syrians see their role as Lebanon’s principal power broker in all matters domestic, and have used this and previous crises to restore the influence Syria lost following Hariri’s assassination in February, 2005. This is a role, however, that introduces some tension in the Syrian-Iranian alliance, with both jockeying for influence over Hezbollah. Whether Syria or Iran emerges as Hezbollah’s main sponsor may seem a distinction without a difference to many in Washington, but Damascus arguably has a greater appreciation than Tehran both for the vulnerability of Lebanon’s domestic order and for the value of preserving a reasonably inclusive balance of power. From a U.S. perspective, a Saudi-Syrian deal that avoids a deadly crisis and keeps Saad Hariri in power is not a bad thing.

The final details of a settlement may not be known for some time, but its broad outlines are clear. The possibility that a deal would be needed has been apparent since at least May, 2009, when Der Spiegel first revealed the tribunal’s interest in Hizballah. It gained significant momentum, however, only in the past two months, as the timetable for handing down indictments became clearer. The trade-off at the core of the settlement is the acceptance by all parties of the tribunal’s findings, the rejection by Hezbollah of any official role in the assassination and of any links that might emerge between individuals named in the indictments and the movement’s leadership, and acceptance by Saad Hariri of Hezbollah’s claims that to the extent its operatives were associated with the assassination, they were acting as rogue elements-perhaps under Israeli control — and not on behalf of Hezbollah’s leadership. Hariri might hope to use the tribunal to exact concessions on the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons. This is unlikely to happen. Nasrallah and Syria, on their part, have hoped to be able to pressure Hariri to reject the tribunal’s findings and bring the investigation into his father’s death to an inconclusive end. This too is unlikely to happen. The most likely outcome is that the broad terms of this settlement will hold, the current government will remain intact, and the Lebanese political system will have moved, if only by a couple of notches, in directions that enhance the influence of Saudi Arabia and Syria and erode slightly the standing of Iran as a player in Lebanon’s political arena. 

We can expect jockeying and brinksmanship over the terms of this deal to continue to the last possible minute. Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last Tuesday can best be seen in this light. Though it was, admittedly, good political theatre, his evidence of Israeli complicity in the Hariri assassination was utterly unpersuasive, including to most Lebanese. Nonetheless, the tribunal has, appropriately, agreed to review it. This review may delay the handing down of indictments but is highly unlikely to affect their content and is a necessary response to Hizballah’s claims that the tribunal is somehow serving Israeli interests. 

Thus, despite Nasrallah’s blatant attempts to fend off the inevitable, the most likely course of events is that the rough terms of the deal negotiated under Syrian and Saudi auspices will hold.  This is not an outcome that either the U.S. or Lebanon’s political actors prefer — it is an outcome, however, that all can live with and it leaves the U.S. and its Lebanese supporters marginally better off. 

Steven Heydemann is Vice President of the Grants and Fellowships program and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Steven Heydemann is the Janet W. Ketcham 1953 chair in Middle East studies at Smith College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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