Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Lebanese Dilemma

By Musa Keilani
As expected, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has issued charges and arrest warrants for the investigation into former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri’s murder in 2005.
According to Lebanese media reports, the four suspects targeted by the arrest warrants are members of Hizbollah and include Mustafa Badreddine, brother-in-law of top operative Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a 2008 bombing in Damascus, Salim Ayyash, a Hizbollah member who holds US citizenship, and Hassan Anise, who has changed his name to Hassan Issa. A similar indictment and warrants for other suspects have been delivered to the Syrian government, but it can be safely concluded that Damascus would not cooperate with the STL, which suspects Syrian officials of controlling the alleged Hizbollah team accused of carrying out the assassination.
It is uncertain what options the government of Hizbollah-backed Prime Minister Najib Mikati has over the STL move, which now calls for the suspects to be put on trial. Hizbollah has 18 seats in the 30-member Mikati Cabinet, which was formed after Hizbollah engineered the downfall of the government of Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated prime minister,in January, when he refused to call off cooperation with the tribunal investigating his father’s murder.
Mikati is not in a position to take an independent decision in the affair because he depends on Hizbollah for the survival of his government, and the group has ruled out cooperating with the STL, which it accuses of being a US/Israeli weapon against it.
Mikati has been given 30 days to execute the arrest warrants. Clearly, he spent about five months making up his government and would have had enough time to contemplate what his response to the STL move should be. His initial response on Thursday was clinical, clearly playingfor time. There was no final word yet on who killed Hariri, Mikati noted.
“The indictments are not verdicts,” he said, and all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
However, stalling for time might not work, because the US has thrown its weight behind the STL, and so have Western allies.
If the governments of Lebanon and Syria reject the tribunal’s indictments and refuse to extradite the suspects and witnesses named therein for trial in The Hague, they would be referred to the UN Security Council for sanctions to enforce their compliance.
What makes the equation more complicated are the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Syria. The Syrian government has cracked down heavily on the protesters, the result being 1,300 dead, thousands wounded and 15,000 citizens made refugees in Lebanon and Turkey. Damascus has moved on a parallel track to pacify the people and international community by allowing an unprecedented meeting of pro-democracy activists in Damascus last month, but the move was not very convincing. Activists are demanding political reforms that could not be accepted by the regime because compliance will mean rooting out the domination of the Alawite sect in power and exposing its leaders to prosecution by the powers to be in Damascus.
Hence, the Syrian regime is putting up a no-holds-barred effort to fight off the challenge. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed in working out a political solution to the conflict (although it is highly unlikely).
Lebanese political leaders, including those of Hizbollah and others, are closely watching the developments in Syria, since any upheaval there would have an immediate impact on Lebanon.
In the meantime, Iran is trying to muscle its way into the equation. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled the STL indictment as “null and void” being the work of a Western/Israeli tool seeking to undermine Hizbollah.
The deadlock threatens to plunge Lebanon into a new and violent crisis.
The Lebanese government does not have the military power to challenge Hizbollah (which calls the shots in the government anyway). There does not seem to be any possibility at this point in time that the Hizbollah-dominated government could be brought down and the elements in the equation would be overturned.
On the other hand, analysts cannot overlook the possibility that the Hizbollah members named in the STL charge sheet are not guilty as charged. They could be victims of a frame up or were conned into an Israeli operation disguised as a Syrian-led plot. Doubts still persist over the Hariri assassination. Experts have asserted that there were many loopholes in any theory, implicating Israel or Syria in the killing. They pointed to the sophistication of the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. They said that Lebanese agents could not have had access to the technology and equipment that overrode several security precautions for the 16-vehicle Hariri convoy that was decimated in the remote-control bombing.
It has since emerged that all cell phones were demobilised as routine within a one-kilometre radius of the Hariri convoy wherever it went.
There is the hypothesis that since the original technology was Israeli, it follows that the know how to override it and allow a remote-control operation must have come from Israel, and Israel could have used its agents in Lebanon to carry the deadly bombing out. But the most convincing argument is that Israel cannot have done it for one single reason,which is thatHariri had committedhimself to making peace with Israel during his Sevre talks with French and American higher echelons.
In conclusion, the US and its supporters will definitely put up a stiff battle to have the STL order carried out, whereas Hizbollah and its allies can be expected to wage an equally bitter fight against it.
Fuelling the crisis and perhaps dragging Hizbollah into a new war will shake the status quo in the Lebanese political landscape, with the whole region suffering the ramifications.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 03/2011

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