- By Mona YacoubianMona Yacoubian served as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East bureau at USAID from 2014 to 2017.
The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) delivered its long-anticipated indictment to Lebanese prosecutor Said Mirza yesterday, reportedly naming members of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. By accusing Hezbollah of murdering a prominent Sunni leader, the sealed indictment and accompanying arrest warrants could spark renewed sectarian unrest during a time of broader regional instability. Lebanese authorities have 30 days to execute the arrest warrants, while Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has previously warned that his organization would "cut the hands" of anyone who tries to detain a Hezbollah member. Nasrallah will deliver a speech tomorrow evening, surely slamming the indictments. New indictments naming Syrian elements may also be issued in the coming weeks, adding to the tension.
Taken together, these developments present Prime Minister Najib Miqati and his new government with their most significant challenge yet, potentially putting Lebanon on a collision course with the international community, in addition to the threat of domestic violence. Developments related to the tribunal have toppled previous cabinets, most recently in January when the government collapsed following the withdrawal of Hezbollah and its allies from the cabinet. Yet, some mitigating factors may blunt the indictment’s impact, resulting in something more than a non-event, but less than the cataclysm long-expected to accompany the indictment’s release.
Lebanon’s fractious population is deeply divided over the UN-backed court. As with so many issues in Lebanese politics, the STL is refracted through the sectarian lens of each confession. For the Sunnis, the tribunal embodies the instrument that ensures Hariri’s killers are brought to justice. For Hezbollah and the Shiite community, the STL lies at the heart of an "American-Israeli plot" to neutralize, if not destroy, the organization. Beyond that, Hezbollah seeks to manage the indictment’s fallout to minimize the damage to their standing not only within Lebanon, but in the Sunni Arab world more broadly — a priority that may assume greater urgency amidst the Arab uprisings.
For its part, the Christian community is divided, with key leaders staking positions both for and against the UN court. The division reflects deeper angst within the community as it struggles to contend with its waning power. Finally, Walid Jumblatt — feudal leader of Lebanon’s small yet important Druze community — has vacillated between staunch support and outright derision of the tribunal based on his calculation of where the prevailing political winds blow. Signaling his continued support for Hezbollah, Jumblatt emphasized the need to preserve stability over justice.
Yet, while concern over Lebanon’s stability is certainly warranted, the STL indictments may not serve as the violent flashpoint that previously seemed inevitable. Several developments suggest a more muted reaction is possible. First, over the past two years since falling under the international spotlight as the "prime suspect," Hezbollah has worked assiduously to discredit the STL in the court of Lebanese public opinion. Through multiple speeches and press conferences, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah repeatedly railed against the tribunal as politicized and a tool of the Americans and Israelis. Citing numerous press leaks and raising the issue of "false witnesses" who reportedly misled the initial UN investigation, Nasrallah’s attempts to shape the narrative, while not convincing all Lebanese, may have sown enough popular doubt to provide appropriate cover against the charges. Hezbollah has certainly prepared its supporters for the indictments, so they are less likely to respond with violence.
Even among those whom Hezbollah’s sophisticated PR campaign fails to convince, the "shock and awe" of the UN indictments likely has been deflated. In advance of their release, the indictments were discussed and dissected endlessly, rendering the actual announcement somewhat anti-climactic and possibly disarming its potential to provoke large-scale demonstrations and unrest. Of course, a violent reaction emanating from radicalized elements within the Sunni community is always a possibility.
Second, Lebanon’s newly-formed cabinet is dominated by Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8th coalition. Together, they hold 18 of the 30 cabinet portfolios, providing them with a majority that likely will ensure against any successful attempts to undermine Hezbollah via the STL. Hezbollah’s maximalist demands regarding the STL center on ceasing all cooperation with the court and withdrawing Lebanese funding (Lebanon is responsible for 49 percent of the budget) and judges from the tribunal. While Prime Minister Miqati may finesse these demands, Hezbollah nonetheless has some guarantees — for now — that the Lebanese government will not use the STL to go after it. Indeed, nobody, including the United Nations, has any illusion that Hezbollah will relinquish any of its operatives named in the arrest warrants. In recognition of this reality, the STL provides for holding the trial in absentia — a first for international justice since the Nuremberg Trials.
Third, in many ways, the impact of neighboring Syria’s uprising has eclipsed concerns about potential fallout from the STL indictment. Should violence in Syria continue to escalate leading the Assad regime to unravel, Hezbollah will face a far more serious existential challenge than that posed by the indictment. It will lose a key ally and an invaluable supply line of sophisticated weapons. Even if Assad prevails over the protests in the short to medium term, Hezbollah must contend with the multiple challenges of a weakened and isolated Syria, potentially confronting its own re-defining moment of truth.
Nonetheless, in the coming days and weeks, Prime Minister Miqati will face significant challenges as the tribunal process moves forward. Given Lebanon’s inherent volatility, sectarian violence could still flare up, particularly if Syria falls in the court’s crosshairs. The prime minister will need to strike a delicate balance on Lebanon’s response to the STL. He must find a compromise that sufficiently respects Lebanon’s international commitments thereby deflecting domestic criticism from STL supporters and the threat of international isolation, without drawing the ire of Hezbollah and its allies. The cabinet’s policy statement, slated to be presented next week to parliament for approval, suggests exactly this approach. It states Lebanon’s respect for international commitments while underscoring the need to preserve civil peace. Miqati has warned against attempts to exploit the indictment to destabilize Lebanon. While significant threats to Lebanon’s peace and stability remain, the indictment may not unleash the catastrophic violence that had long been feared.
Mona Yacoubian is director of the Lebanon Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace.