Lebanon’s sleeping demons

Will the Special Tribunal for Lebanon untangle the current political deadlock?

The trial of five men accused of plotting the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri began on 16 January. [EPA]

The bombing in Beirut’s southern suburb on January 21 was the sixth suicide bomb attack targetting Hezbollah’s stronghold since July 2013. It came only a few days after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) convened its long-delayed trials of Hezbollah operatives indicted for the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on January 16. The bombing did not, however, sway politicians away from efforts to form a national unity government.

Both the Lebanese President, Michel Sulaiman, as well as Prime Minister-designate, Tammam Salam, favoured a formula now acceptable to leading March 8 and March 14 coalitions – the so-called 8-8-8 variety that granted each group 8 portfolios with the final 8 in the hand of centrists – even if specific actors rejected aspects of the deal under discussion. Regrettably, Lebanon awakened its sleeping demons, though few weighed up the consequences of the on-going polarisation.

Little changed after the nine-months-long haggling over Salam’s preferences, led by six broad concerns, which were led by the infamous “blocking third” right that granted Hezbollah and its allies a veto power. Although this demand was apparently dropped, the party’s willingness to forego the triptych “army, people, and resistance”, was not. The oft-repeated slogan, which was far more than a motto, stood as a founding principle that passed the test of time. 

Whether Hezbollah was now willing to discuss the fate of its weapons or, even more important, whether it was ready to respect a previous acquiescence to the June 2012 Baabda Declaration that defined Lebanon’s position – complete neutrality – vis-a-vis the Syrian Civil war, were difficult to anticipate.

Lebanon’s merchant politicians

In the event, and disappointingly, Lebanon’s merchant politicians quibbled over key ministers like Interior, Defense, Finance and Energy, which rotated amongst them in the past. Press reports revealed that March 8 tenors refused to give up both the energy and telecommunications ministries, cash cows that embellished bank accounts, even if water and electricity services were whimsical and telecommunications remained erratic.

It was within such a context, and nearly nine years after a massive truck bomb that killed Rafiq Hariri and his companions, that the STL finally convened in The Hague. In the words of Prosecutor Norman Farrell, who laid out a strong case against four accused men – Salim Ayyash, Mustafah Badredine, Hussein Onessi and Assad Sabra – “The people of Lebanon have the right to have this trial, to hear the evidence and to seek the truth”.

These simple words meant far more than many assumed. Indeed, as Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah vowed not to surrender the accused even 300 years from now, Farrell set out to seek guilty verdicts on behalf, perhaps instead, of emasculated Lebanese authorities who were unable to enforce the laws of the land.

To be sure, Farrell’s case, and various defense rebuttals, will probably take nearly two years to be carefully laid out, with promises that elaborate communications evidence would be presented to prove who ordered out the crime, and how it was carried out. Few details emerged, at least so far, as to what motivated the assassination. Observers anticipated several surprises, including eyewitnesses and, perhaps, audio conversations implicating high-ranking Lebanese and Syrian officials.

This was the crux of the matter. For although Hariri accommodated Hafiz Al Assad as well as his successor, President Bashar Al Assad, suspicious fingers pointed at Syria precisely because Hariri planned to gradually distance his country from Damascus. Of course, the option was a non-starter for the Ba’ath Party that, it was worth recalling, seldom accepted Beirut’s independence.

Under regional and international pressure, however, and especially after an unprecedented anti-Syrian demonstration that brought nearly a third of the Lebanese population together in downtown Beirut, 15,000 Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in April 2005. The then Prime Minister, Omar Karami, and later pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud, were sidelined as a new prime minister, Fouad Siniora, reenergized those who sought genuine independence.

French President Jacques Chirac, a Hariri friend who visited Beirut two days after the assassination to pay his condolences, openly voiced his strong condemnation, calling it a “heinous, indescribable act”. More important, he arranged for an international investigation, which the Lebanese government- at first- rejected but eventually welcomed after the UN Security Council authorised the establishment of the STL in May 2007.

Weakened by its protector’s withdrawal from Lebanon and undeterred by electoral losses, Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition partners, including the anti-Hariri Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun, forced Saad Hariri’s hands. Though many preferred to forget pledges made at the 2008 Doha conference, which ended two year-long crisis as it ushered in a new president as well as a unity government, it was not long before Saad Hariri’s cabinet collapsed. What separated the two sides were three specific issues: continued opposition to Syria, what Hezbollah antagonists say is its pro-Iranian stands, and the STL.

Whatever optimism existed that the Lebanese would finally learn the truth (al-haqiqah) were placed in abeyance, especially after Hezbollah ministers walked away from the government that, naturally, could no longer function.

Whatever optimism existed that the Lebanese would finally learn the truth (al-haqiqah) were placed in abeyance, especially when in November 2006 Hezbollah ministers walked away from the government that, naturally, could no longer function.

Rule of the jungle or rule of law?

This legacy was vitally important for it illustrated an internal Lebanese split, with one group saying that they seek international backing to uphold law and order, while another wagered on the Syrian tutelage over the country. In time, however, Lebanon found a political modus vivendi, especially after Saad Hariri led his Future (al-Mustaqbal) Party and March 14 coalition members to electoral victories in 2009.

For its part, Hezbollah, which perceived the STL as a nemesis that targeted it, was convinced that the objective of the tribunal was to emasculate it, destroy its military might, and gradually force it to fold. Inasmuch as the “resistance movement” believed it was the target of mischief, few were surprised by its vociferous assaults on the STL, and even fewer were shocked after Hezbollah leaders smashed the tribunal’s credibility amongst its followers. Hezbollah fears were thus behind the many doubts raised by eloquent cadres who, ostensibly, felt obligated to refute alleged tribunal motivations. This was also why the STL, again from a party perspective, always refused to examine alternative culprits. In the words of Shaykh Muhammad Yazbiq, a party ideologue, the STL was an American-Israeli project.

Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah was equally blunt: Israel, rather than Hezbollah, organised the assassination and the proof, he claimed, was presented in his August 2010 press conference when he cited the presence of Israeli aircraft overhead that supposedly helped an Israeli agent by the name of Ghassan Jid, to conduct the bombing. Others added their own interpretations though Sayyid Nasrallah was adamant: “Because the STL ignored such evidence, whoever cooperated with it was, consequently, working against the Resistance.”

The sum total of such positions sank Lebanon in its current state that, in the aftermath of the Spring 2011 Arab uprisings and especially after Hezbollah engaged in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime, sealed the country’s fate. For Hezbollah, no compromises were possible on what party leaders viewed as principles, though the most recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, followed by the thawing of Western-Iranian ties over Tehran’s nuclear program, altered the equation. While still embedded in the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah and its local allies, confronted fundamental threats to their very survival that, in the view of local observers, galvanised the party’s leadership.

It remained to be determined whether the December 27 2013 assassination of former minister Muhammad Chatah, and the various car bombs in Beirut’s southern suburb since then, was the strategic error that compounded Hezbollah’s dilemma. With the first STL hearings, that predicament gained additional weight, forcing the blasé Lebanese political establishment to confront an existential conundrum: would they learn to live under the law?

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).