Lebanon politics

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The attempt to create an independent agency under UN auspices to investigate the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and several related crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators was always fraught with difficulty, given the highly charged political context. The political tensions surrounding the case have increased markedly as the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) gets close to issuing the first indictments. Amid strong indications that members of Hizbullah will be among those charged, the powerful Shia movement has agitated for an investigation of its hypothesis that Israel was responsible for the assassination. This could stretch out the whole process, but it also offers a means to ward off a political crisis that could easily turn violent.

Hizbullah’s leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, has made a series of media appearances since mid-July expressing his concerns about the STL. This culminated on August 9th in a two-hour presentation, broadcast live on most television stations in Lebanon, in which he displayed aerial photographs that he claimed that Hizbullah had downloaded from Israeli surveillance drones, suggesting that Israel had shown close interest in the movements of Mr Hariri in the period leading up to his assassination on February 14th 2005. He also claimed that a fugitive Lebanese officer subsequently exposed as having worked as an agent for Israel had been in the vicinity when the bomb that killed Mr Hariri exploded, and he said that any evidence based on mobile-phone records needs to be reviewed in light of the recent arrests of Israeli spies that have infiltrated telecoms companies. He ascribed to Israel the motive of wanting to engineer a political crisis that would result in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon—which indeed transpired.

Mr Nasrallah acknowledged that what he presented did not amount to conclusive proof of Israeli guilt, but he insisted that there were sufficient grounds for the Lebanese authorities to launch an investigation. He said that this task should not be left to the STL because it had already been shown to be tainted by pro-Israeli bias. The STL’s chief prosecutor responded to Mr Nasrallah’s revelations by submitting a request through the office of the Lebanese attorney-general for Hizbullah to make any relevant information that it possesses about the assassination and the other cases available to the tribunal. The Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri (a son of Rafiq), has also let it be known through newspaper leaks that he is in favour of investigating the Israeli angle. Mr Hariri is in a delicate position as his personal interest in finding out the truth about his father’s murder could conflict with his responsibility for safeguarding Lebanon’s security and social cohesion.

Phases of politicisation

The Hariri case is entering into new territory. The UN commission of investigation, which was the precursor of the STL, devoted much of its initial efforts to examining the hypothesis that Syria was responsible. Syrian intelligence services had been the dominant force on the Lebanese security scene over the previous three decades, and relations between Syria and the late Mr Hariri had become increasingly tense in the months leading up to the assassination. However, as the investigation dragged on, doubts began to surface as to whether there was sufficient evidence to indict Syrian officials. Earlier this year it emerged that the STL had requested interviews with a number of members of Hizbullah. This has led Mr Nasrallah to accuse the West of seeking to use the STL against Hizbullah and its principal backer, Iran. He has also come close to implying that the West has let Syria off the hook as part of a wider diplomatic game, whereby the West would reward Syria for breaking its alliance with Iran by endorsing the restoration of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.

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All three of the parties involved—Syria, Hizbullah and Israel—have been implicated in previous terrorist attacks and assassinations in Beirut. Israel’s operations included the detonation of a car bomb in January 1979 that killed Abu Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian intelligence chief suspected of having been behind the kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich seven years earlier. Hizbullah’s most spectacular operations were a series of bomb attacks in 1983 and 1984 on the US embassy and on the barracks used by the American and French contingents of a multinational peacekeeping force. Syria has been associated with a number of political assassinations, notably those of two presidents-elect, Bashir Gemayel in 1982 and René Moawwad in 1989, although there has been no conclusive proof of active Syrian involvement in either case.

Based on previous behaviour and on the political situation at the time of Mr Hariri’s assassination, there were compelling reasons for suspecting Syrian involvement. However, the delay in the indictment and the tainting of the early investigation by the exposure of false witnesses has been enough to cast doubt on that initial hypothesis. However, there is still a possibility that Syria may have had an indirect role, even if the operation was carried out by some other party, such as Hizbullah. Mr Nasrallah has now raised another possibility, with his insinuation of an Israeli conspiracy designed to harm both Hizbullah and Syria. However outlandish, this view is bound to have some currency among Mr Nasrallah’s many supporters in Lebanon and further afield. This has made it politically imperative for both Saad al-Hariri and the STL to give it at least the semblance of serious consideration.