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December 7, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 648

The Power Struggle for Control of Lebanon on the Eve of the Release of the Indictment in the Al-Hariri Assassination Case

December 7, 2010 | By N. Mozes
Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 648

Introduction

"Hizbullah and its allies have a full spectrum of options, from inaction to extensive action, that would bring about significant political change at the governmental level."[1] Thus, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah described the options that will be open to his organization after the International Tribunal for Lebanon issues its indictment in the case of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. While Nasrallah gave no hint that he has a preferred outcome, his statements ratchet up the uncertainty and apprehension that prevail in Lebanon in advance of the indictment's release – uncertainty and apprehension that stem from the expectation that the indictment will accuse Hizbullah members of the assassination, and, according to some reports, will also implicate Syria.

In recent months, Hizbullah has made the issue of the International Tribunal into a bone of contention with the March 14 Forces – that is, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri and his supporters – after it had (at least formally) been a matter of consensus in Lebanon.

The importance of the tribunal to the March 14 Forces is clear; it is the one charged with investigating the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri in 2005, as well as political assassinations that have taken place in Lebanon since then – most of which have been against members of the March 14 Forces. Accordingly, abolishing the tribunal, or undermining it, will leave the March 14 Forces vulnerable to physical attack, and will sanction the ongoing political assassinations in the country. Thus, the international tribunal symbolizes the struggle of the March 14 Forces, and is an important element in their political agenda.

For Hizbullah, the international tribunal is a flagrant provocation, because an indictment against it will stain its reputation in both the Arab and the international arenas. In recent months, Hizbullah has sought to minimize any possible damage that could result from the indictment's release, by depicting it as part of a Zionist-American plot to harm Hizbullah and, indeed, all of Lebanon, and thereby discrediting it, and by demanding that Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri exonerate Hizbullah completely.

It should be noted that since the national unity government's establishment a year ago, the March 8 Forces (i.e., Hizbullah and its allies in Lebanon), which are part of the government, have made it difficult for Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri to function in various areas that have nothing to do with the international tribunal: they have blocked the state budget, encouraged various sectors to protest against the government over employment conditions,[2] and accused the government of relinquishing national resources for Israel's benefit.[3] These moves paralyzed the government, and served as a pretext for March 8 Forces demands that it disband.

It is not inconceivable that Hizbullah and its allies, in Lebanon and outside it, could leverage the struggle over the indictment and the international tribunal to change the balance in the parliament and in the government, and take advantage of the majority they already have in parliament so as to allow the March 8 Forces to take control by democratic means. Statements by Wiam Wahhab, a former Lebanese minister who is close to Syria and Hizbullah, support this; he said that "the battle is over the regime, not over the tribunal... [Prime Minister Sa'd Al] Hariri must agree to a power-share, or must leave..."[4] Wahhab told the Syrian daily Al-Watan that what was at issue was not only Hizbullah's exoneration in Al-Hariri's assassination, but also "Sa'd Al-Hariri's attempt to pull Lebanon into [unacceptable] regional and international alliances... Today, [Syrian] President Bashar Al-Assad holds the cards in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. These are the facts of a new policy that Sa'd Al-Hariri must internalize..." Wahhab added that stability in Lebanon is contingent upon the dismantling of the March 14 Forces, which he called an American creation.[5]

Hizbullah's Moves

Hizbullah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah are waging a multi-front battle to clear its name; the battle includes an extensive propaganda campaign to destroy the international tribunal's legitimacy and to harm the image of Hizbullah's and Nasrallah's rivals, the March 14 Forces, in the eyes of Lebanese and Arab public opinion. By means of its representatives and with the help of its allies in the Lebanese parliament and government, Hizbullah is seeking to pressure Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri to remove his support for the international tribunal, both by paralyzing the government and by systematically intimidating the March 14 Forces and their regional and international supporters.

Destroying the International Tribunal's Legitimacy

Hizbullah's main claim against the international tribunal is that it is a political institution operated by international forces that seek to harm the resistance, not a legal body engaged in uncovering the truth about the Al-Hariri assassination.

According to Nasrallah, at the outset the international investigatory committee pointed at Syria as the sole culprit, and that after it reached a dead end, it turned in Hizbullah's direction, without even considering the possibility that Israel was behind the assassination.[6] At a well-engineered press conference, Nasrallah presented ostensible evidence of Israel's involvement in the assassination,[7] and claimed that prosecutor Daniel Bellemare was in contact with foreign security apparatuses and was leaking information in order to prepare the ground for indicting Hizbullah in the crime.[8]

Nasrallah presented the international tribunal's decision to release four senior Lebanese officers with Syria connections, who had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the assassination, as another sign of the tribunal's politicization and lack of objectivity.[9] He said that their release proved that the investigation had for years been based on "false witnesses," and that after the officers were released there was no attempt to find out who was behind them.[10] Nasrallah also claimed in the press conference that the investigation had been based on information provided by Israel-controlled media.[11]

Nasrallah claimed that accusing first Syria and then Hizbullah was an attempt by Israel and the U.S. to eliminate the forces that opposed them, by harming their image and their reputation – after the previous attempt, i.e. the 2006 war, had been thwarted.[12] Na'im Qassem, Nasrallah's deputy, said that the indictment had become a synonym for an attack on the resistance, and was no longer a path to the truth.[13] He said that today, the investigation was only a cover for the gathering of intelligence on Hizbullah for Israel, adding: "What is happening now is outrageous. The investigation is over. The indictment that they say will be released was actually written in 2006, and the [German] weekly Der Spiegel reported as much. I have known this since 2008... All these investigations are a cover for gathering as much information as possible, [information] that contributes nothing to the investigation..."[14]

Nasrallah called on all of Lebanon's residents to boycott the tribunal's investigators and not to cooperate with them, saying that such cooperation meant supporting the forces working against the resistance.[15] Hizbullah MP Hussein Al-Mousawi declared an open conflict with the international tribunal and with the Americans and the Zionists, who he said are sponsoring it, warning that cooperating with the tribunal or with any international element that could serve Israel constitutes betrayal of Lebanon.[16]

As part of the efforts to impede the tribunal's operation, in September this year MPs from the March 8 Forces tried to block the transferring of Lebanon's part in the tribunal's budget (49%), on the grounds that the Lebanese Finance Minister had approved this funding by devious and unconstitutional means. It should be noted that six months prior to this, the government, including the March 8 representatives, had approved the transfer of the funds for the tribunal. In response to a question on this, a March 8 MP said, "at the time, we had not yet decided to launch the battle against the international tribunal."[17]

Hizbullah has also sabotaged the efforts of the international investigators on the ground. For example, on October 27, 2010, during a pre-scheduled meeting between the tribunal's investigators and the manager of a clinic in the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut, a group of women stormed in and, according to the daily Al-Hayat, took away documents and a portable computer belonging to the investigators. The Al-Mustaqbal daily, owned by the Al-Hariri family, reported that the women had been accompanied by Hizbullah members.[18]

The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai reported that Hizbullah is following Lebanese officers who are cooperating with the investigation, whom it regards as "spies," as well as foreign officers and investigators of the tribunal, whom it regards as "unwanted elements" in Lebanon.[19]

Presenting the March 14 Forces as Israeli Agents

As part of their struggle against the tribunal, Hizbullah and its allies claimed that the March 14 Forces had contacts with Israel, the U.S., and other elements hostile to the resistance – in effect accusing them of treason. In a speech on the occasion of Martyrs' Day, Nasrallah accused the Al-Siniora government of prolonging the 2006 war with Israel after a ceasefire had been agreed upon, and thus held this government responsible for increasing the Lebanese death-toll.[20]

Following reports about the exposure of an Israeli spy network in Lebanon, Nasrallah claimed that these agents had proliferated in recent years because of "their conviction that they were not being pursued or kept under surveillance... [and because the climate] in Lebanon embraces them and sees nothing wrong in their ties with Israel or in their acting as its agents... We have come to the point where collaborating with Israel is a political [stance] and is regarded as a [legitimate] option in the local and regional struggle... The ones who created [this climate] must take care, lest they become accomplices [in the crimes of the spies] they are protecting."[21]

As part of the efforts to compel the March 14 Forces to comply with Hizbullah's demands, Nasrallah warned them that the U.S. and France, on whom they rely, are involved in Lebanon only for their own selfish purposes and in order to protect Israel. He said that the U.S. was the one who had instigated the Civil War in 1975, and that France was the one who had insisted on introducing amendments into the Taif Agreement that improved the status of the Shi'ites at the expense of the Sunnis and Christians. He added that former U.S. president George W. Bush had done nothing to help the Al-Siniora government on May 7, 2008 (i.e., during the Hizbullah takeover of Beirut), because these events had not threatened Israel.[22]

Several articles in the daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Syria and Hizbullah, warned Sa'd l-Hariri that the U.S. did not have allies, but only interests, so he should not expect it to come to his rescue, especially since Lebanon was at the bottom of its priority list.[23] One of the articles also stated that Saudi Arabia, Al-Hariri's patron, has realized that it must not pin all its hopes on him, and that in order to preserve its influence among the Lebanese Sunnis, it must develop ties with other Sunni leaders, including Al-Hariri's rivals.[24] Another contended that Prince 'Abd Al-'Aziz, the Saudi king's advisor who is in charge of the Lebanon dossier in Saudi Arabia, had suggested that Al-Hariri would resign, and in return his rivals would not harm Saudi Arabia's interests.[25]

Paralyzing the Government

Today, opposition elements refused to let the government convene until it places the issue of the false witnesses at the top of its agenda, thereby preventing the management of any other issue, such as the budget. Social Affairs Minister Salim Al-Sayegh, from the March 14 Forces, described the situation as a "cold war," saying that Lebanon was being held hostage to the false witnesses issue.[26]

Threats Directed at Al-Hariri

Hizbullah and its allies are presenting Prime Minister Al-Hariri and his supporters with a choice between justice and calm, that is, between bringing the murderers to trial and maintaining Lebanon's stability. They are threatening mass riots and protests that will paralyze the country, or worse – civil war. On several occasions, Nasrallah clarified that his organization would not remain silent in the face of "political accusations": "[Hizbullah] is part of the state [institutions], the government, and the parliament, and if [other] elements in the government make allegations... of this kind, we will not tolerate it... because it would be an attack on us and on our image. [Such] a political accusation may have serious repercussions on the political and social level, and [a grave impact on] everyday life in Lebanon, on the local and national levels..."[27]

Nasrallah threatened that Hizbullah will "cut off the hand" that tries to arrest any of its members for murder,[28] and that "whoever is behind [the attempt to blame Hizbullah] will come to regret it. Everyone must know that on May 7, [2008], we merely lifted our hand, but we are strong enough to overturn ten tables..."[29] He stressed that his organization would reject any compromise, including the option of indicting Hizbullah members in the murder without implicating the organization as a whole. "Even if they say, 'we are not blaming Hizbullah, but [only] individuals within it,' they will still do us harm," he said.[30]

The Resistance Axis – Iran and Syria

Unsurprisingly, Hizbullah has the support of its patron Iran and its ally Syria. In the last two months, Syria has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia, the main patron of the March 14 Forces, in order to reach understandings on Lebanon. Recently, Iran has entered the negotiations as well, which may indicate that Syria's influence over Hizbullah is limited, or that there is need for a weightier regional power that can reach understandings with Saudi Arabia about other sensitive regions, such as Iraq, in return for compromises in Lebanon.

Iran

The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon in mid-October was a significant show of support for Hizbullah and Nasrallah. According to reports, Ahmadinejad politely refused a request by Sa'd Al-Hariri to persuade Hizbullah to be moderate in its response to an indictment against its operatives, on the grounds that this was an internal Lebanese affair. However, at a mass rally held in his honor in Hizbullah's stronghold in Beirut, the Iranian president did not refrain from giving his opinion about the investigation, saying that the West was responsible for Al-Hariri's murder and is trying to blame it on Iran's allies as part of its battle against this country.[31]

Syria

Until recently, Syria – which was the main suspect in the Al-Hariri assassination, since it controlled Lebanon at the time, and since it seemed unlikely that an operation of this magnitude could be realized without its knowledge – took a stance similar to Hizbullah's, trying to discredit and abolish the international tribunal. Turning the spotlights from Syria to Hizbullah after the publication of the Der Spiegel article did not make Syria abandon its fight against the tribunal. An indictment of Hizbullah, Syria's strategic ally in Lebanon, would harm its status as a state and would raise questions about how it did not know anything about such a plan by the Lebanese organization. Furthermore, it may be that Syria's apprehensions about the international tribunal stem from the fact that it is still considered a suspect itself, as a backer of Hizbullah in the assassination. Another possibility is that Syria is seeking to retaliate against the March 14 Forces and their supporters in the region and outside it for leading the struggle against Syria following the assassination. Ghassan Sa'ud, a columnist in the daily Al-Akhbar, wrote, "Syria wants to mock the international tribunal, not because the indictment worries Hizbullah, but in order to prove that [the accusations] were an international lie from the outset."[32]

Although Syrian officials stress that the tribunal is strictly a domestic Lebanese affair that does not concern Syria, this country has acted to abolish the tribunal, or at least to postpone the release of the indictment, while forcefully supporting Hizbullah. According to a report in Al-Akhbar, in one meeting with Sa'd Al-Hariri, Al-Assad stressed that any accusation of Hizbullah and the resistance was an accusation against Syria,[33] and made it absolutely clear to him that that he must choose between the tribunal and staying in power – otherwise Lebanon would be destroyed and his premiership would be over.[34] It was also reported that at a preparation meeting in advance of the joint visit by Al-Assad and Saudi King 'Abdallah in Lebanon in order to calm the situation there, Assad called for abolishing the tribunal because it was a political burden to Lebanon, and stressed the danger posed by an indictment of Hizbullah, which Syria supports.[35]

Despite this stance of Syria, the two leaders carried out their joint visit to Beirut. According to reports in the Lebanese press, the Saudis promised to act to postpone the release of the indictment, and in return, Syria instructed its allies in Lebanon to lower the flames of the conflict. The resulting calm was short lived. Only a few days after the visit, Wiam Wahhab, a former Lebanese minister who is close to the Syrian leadership, warned that if Hizbullah is directly attacked and civil war breaks out in Lebanon, Syria's tanks will reenter its territory.[36] Wahhab told the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida: "If a sectarian civil war breaks out in Lebanon, Syria will surely intervene... in order to stop [the fighting], by every means at its disposal and without asking anyone's permission."[37]

Reports also had it that Syria was displeased with Sa'd Al-Hariri for failing to keep his promises. Contradicting earlier reports about a rapprochement between Al-Hariri and Syria, columnist Ghassan Sa'ud wrote that trust had never prevailed between the two sides, and that Syria was disappointed with Al-Hariri because, while it had taken trust-building measures – such as remaining neutral during the last Lebanese parliamentary elections – Al-Hariri had not fulfilled his commitments, going so far as to ask Syria to pressure Hizbullah into accepting the indictment.[38]

In a September 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal during a visit to New York, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem said that the tribunal's investigation was political, and, echoing Hizbullah's demand, called to replace it with a Lebanese tribunal in order to ensure an objective investigation. Al-Mu'allem warned that an indictment against Hizbullah would destabilize Lebanon.[39] On another occasion, Al-Mu'allem called on the Lebanese "to remove the reasons for the instability and tension that we are currently witnessing in Lebanon [meaning the tribunal]."[40]

Recently, it was reported that Syria had severed contacts with Al-Hariri on the grounds that it was "unwilling to talk with one who is conspiring against the resistance."[41] Al-Akhbar columnist Ghassan Sa'ud wrote that Syria was no longer sure Al-Hariri could bring about reconciliation between Syria and the Lebanese people, and cited a Syrian official as saying, "Lebanon needs a fundamental change… which means replacing Sa'd Al-Hariri, since he is the only obstacle to a [Syrian-Lebanese] reconciliation." [42]

In addition, Syria renewed its media campaign against the March 14 Forces. Syrian Prime Minister Naji 'Otri, who has rarely referred to this issue, described them as "unimportant cardboard figures."[43] 'Ali Jamalo, editor of the Syrian website Champress, who is close to the Syrian regime, wrote that the March 14 Forces had "sold their conscience and hired their minds and tongues to the Devil…" and that they were exploiting Rafiq Al-Hariri's blood to harm Syria and the resistance.[44] Columnist 'Abdallah Khaled, of the Syrian government daily Teshreen, described the March 14 Forces' rise to power following Al-Hariri's assassination as a "coup," saying: "What is happening now in Lebanon is not a coup, but [an act of] returning things back to their natural course and ending the negative repercussions of the actual coup, which took place in 2005…"[45]

Using the False Witnesses Affair to Discredit the Investigation

An example of Syria-Hizbullah cooperation in the campaign against the tribunal and its supporters in Lebanon is their handling of the false witnesses affair. As mentioned above, one of their claims against the tribunal is that its investigation has relied on false testimonies and on witnesses acting on behalf of Hizbullah's and Syria's enemies. To lend this claim legal weight, they used Jamil Al-Sayyed, formerly the head of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces. Sayyed is one of four pro-Syrian Lebanese officers that were arrested in 2006 based on the witnesses' testimony, and released in 2009 after the witnesses proved unreliable. Syria has allowed him to file a lawsuit against the false witnesses in a Syrian court, and against the figures who allegedly sent them, including senior officials in Lebanon's military and judiciary, such as the current head of internal security, Ashraf Rifi, and General Prosecutor Mirza Sa'id.

At the same time, Assad pressured Al-Hariri on this account. In an August 30, 2010 meeting between them, he threatened the Lebanese prime minister that unless he took care of the false witnesses, Syria would issue arrest warrants against them. Presumably, it was this pressure that prompted Al-Hariri to say publicly, in an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, that false witnesses had "mislead the investigation, harmed Syria, Lebanon and [Al-Hariri's] family… and ruined the relations between the countries, using the murder for political purposes."[46] This statement by Al-Hariri was a triumph for Hizbullah, since it confirmed the organization's claims that the investigation was biased, politicized and based on false testimonies.

The plot thickened when Jamil Al-Sayyed himself was summoned for questioning in Lebanon for lambasting Sa'd Al-Hariri at a September 11, 2010 press conference.[47] The Lebanese opposition supported Al-Sayyed and demanded to cancel the summons against him. Upon his return from Paris, they held a mass reception for him at the airport, and an armed Hizbullah convoy escorted him to his home. This show of power by Hizbullah was regarded by the March 14 Forces as an act of defiance against the Lebanese judiciary and police, as a rebellion against the regime, and as a sample of what would happen should an indictment be issued against Hizbullah.

On October 4, 2010, it was reported that Syria's Prosecutor General had issued arrest warrants against 33 figures connected to the Al-Hariri investigation, most of them associates of Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri. Among them were Wisam Al-Hassan, head of the information branch of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces and contact man between Sa'd Al-Hariri and the Syrian leadership,[48] as well as Internal Security Chief Ashraf Rifi and Prosecutor General Mirza Sa'id. Though Syrian officials, headed by Assad, stressed that this was a legal, rather than political, affair, the issuing of these arrest warrants was seen as a blunt threat directed at Sa'd Al-Hariri, meant to coerce him into complying with Syria's and Hizbullah's demands regarding the tribunal.

Assad: The Indictment Must Be Based on Decisive Evidence

Syria has no interest in letting the March 14 Forces collapse. In fact, a complete collapse of Sa'd Al-Hariri's camp would divest it of its role as mediator between the two sides. Recently, it withdrew its demand to cancel the release of the indictment, after this proved to be unfeasible. In an interview with the daily Al-Hayat, Assad called instead to issue indictments based on decisive evidence rather than conjecture and circumstantial evidence,[49] and Foreign Minister Al-Mu'allem echoed his demand, saying that nobody would object to an indictment based on decisive evidence.[50] This seems to be a tactical maneuver, taking advantage of media reports and of a recent statement by the tribunal's prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, to the effect that most of the evidence in the case is circumstantial.[51]

The March 14 Forces Stand Behind the Tribunal

The pressures exerted by Syria and the March 8 Forces on Prime Minister Al-Hariri to renounce the international tribunal have borne some fruit. Since coming into office, Al-Hariri, who in the past blamed Syria for his father's murder, has made several visits to Damascus and has publicly retracted these accusations. This may also be the result of pressure from Saudi Arabia, his main sponsor, as part of King 'Abdallah's efforts to reconcile with Syria.

However, Al-Hariri has not capitulated to Syria's demand to renounce the tribunal. In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, he said: 'There is a tribunal and it is doing its job… It [is following] its own course, which has no connection to hasty political accusations. There is a tribunal and an investigation, and they have no connection to what I or anyone else thinks. The tribunal examines only proof…"[52] In an interview with the Arabic-language Russian channel Russia Al-Yawm, Al-Hariri said that the existence of the tribunal ensured that political murders would not recur in Lebanon. About Hizbullah's accusations against him, he stressed: "We are the oppressed side. We are the ones whose leaders were murdered…" He expressed his willingness for dialogue, but without coercion: "… I will not have any of them put a gun to my head or tell me where I need to go…" About the arrest warrants issued in Syria against his associates, he said that they were illegal and that he had asked the Lebanese Justice Minister to look into the matter.[53]

Prominent among Al-Hariri's supporters are Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces party, and the Al-Kataeb (Phalangist) party, headed by Amin Al-Gemayel, whose son Pierre Al-Gemayel's murder is one of the crimes included in the international tribunal's mandate. At a meeting with senior officials of his party, Amin Al-Gemayel stressed that the party would support the international tribunal under any circumstances, since this was one of its main causes, and because the tribunal was essential to Lebanon's future and stability. He acknowledged it would be difficult for the Lebanese state to bring the suspects to trial, but said that the indictment itself would be an importance national achievement, since it would expose the culprits.[54] As to the tribunal's allegedly politicized character, he said that murder too was political, as was the Security Council's decision to form the tribunal, but that the tribunal itself was operating purely in the legal domain. Al-Gemayel stressed that those who opposed the tribunal were engaged in "a gradual coup against [Lebanon's] state institutions, as has already happened in the past… Today there is an attempt to overturn the regime and its democratic and pluralistic [characteristics].[55]

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea convened a conference of the Christian members in the March 14 Forces, under the aegis of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, as a show of strength and of support for the international tribunal and Prime Minister Al-Hariri, and as a counterweight to Christian leader Michel Aoun's support of Hizbullah. The conference's closing statement expressed a concern Lebanon would be "removed from its Arab environment and from the international community, and dragged in a direction that is at odds with its history [i.e., towards Iran]… against the will of the majority of Lebanese…"[56]

Unlike March 14 Forces officials, who are cautious in their criticism of Syria, Al-Nahar columnist 'Abd Al-Wahhab Badrakhan, who is close to the March 14 Forces, wrote explicitly that "…Hizbullah, Michel Aoun's faction, and their regional allies, Iran and Syria, are trying to take over the country… the understandings between Saudi Arabia and Syria do not match [the latter's] aspirations, which are to abolish the international tribunal and regain an international power of attorney to manage Lebanon's affairs…"[57]

Another Al-Nahar columnist, Ali Hamada, mocked Hizbullah's attempts to abolish the tribunal, saying: "…This demand is not realistic, and reflects a faulty reading of the international [community's] position… Is it logical that the international community should be defeated by an organization like Hizbullah, which is being pursued by Arab and international [forces alike]? Is it logical that while increasing the sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, the international community would allow an [Iranian] base [to prosper] in Lebanon…?"[58]

International Support for the Tribunal, Prime Minister Al-Hariri

Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri is supported by numerous Arab and non-Arab countries, most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Arab arena, and the U.S. and France in the international one.

Saudi Arabia: Support for the Tribunal Despite Pressures

Despite pressures, especially from Syria and Iran, Saudi Arabia continues to stand by the tribunal and by Sa'd Al-Hariri, though, according to reports in the Lebanese press, the Saudi king has undertaken to postpone the issuing of the indictments as far as possible, one of the reasons being his concern that a civil war in Lebanon would spill over to other countries in the region.[59] Today Saudi Arabia is holding contacts with Iran and Syria in a bid to achieve a lull in Lebanon that will also persist after the release of the indictment. It is assessed that Saudi Arabia may make some concessions to Syria and Iran regarding Lebanon, in return for comprehensive regional understandings also including Iraq.

Egypt: Unflinching Attack on Hizbullah

Egypt is the only Arab country that unreservedly supports the international tribunal and the Lebanese prime minister, and dares to openly attack Hizbullah and Syria. In response to Nasrallah's threat to "cut off any hand" that tries to harm his organization, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit said, "Nobody should think he can cut off hands… It will cause him [to suffer] many casualties."[60]

Osama Saraya, editor of the government daily Al-Ahram, wrote that Hizbullah, which lost its legitimacy as a resistance movement after the 2006 war, is now nothing more than "a militia armed to the teeth with Iranian weapons… [and] a thug who, having been caught red handed, is trying to threaten his partners in the homeland. [His] crimes are many, and the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri is neither the first nor the last of them…"[61] Al-Ahram columnist Makram Ahmad criticized Syria: "Most of the [political] murders were perpetrated when Lebanon was under the control of the Syrian forces. Those who could have easily punished the culprits... are insisting, like Hizbullah, that the tribunal was established for political purposes..."[62]

Recently, Egypt has been working to tighten its relations with Turkey, inter alia in order to form a unified front on the Lebanese issue. After meeting in Turkey, the foreign ministers of the two countries expressed similar views on this issue.[63] It is assessed that Egypt's contacts with Turkey are meant to counterbalance the latter's tightening relations with Syria.

France: Concern about Possible Attack on UNIFIL

So far, France has withstood pressures from Syria and Hizbullah to postpone the release of the indictment or to reject its content – pressures that included threats to harm France's interests in Lebanon and target French troops serving in UNIFIL.

At the same time, France has been holding contacts with various parties in Lebanon in order to ease the tensions and safeguard its interests. As part of these efforts, Lebanese Parliament Speaker and head of the Amal party, Nabih Berri, was summoned to Paris along with Michel Aoun of the March 8 Forces. According to reports in the Lebanese media, Nasrallah refused a request by the French ambassador to meet with him in order to guarantee the safety of the UNIFIL forces after the release of the indictment. The ambassador did meet with Nasrallah's deputy, Na'im Qassem, but received no assurances in this matter.[64]

At the moment, then, there is no guarantee that Hizbullah will not harm UNIFIL after the indictment's release, possibly by means of the locals in South Lebanon, as happened in July 2009.[65] Al-Akhbar columnist Fida 'Itani wrote that a single order from Hizbullah would suffice to prompt the people of South Lebanon to strike at the U.N. troops in the region, especially the Europeans among them.[66]

The U.S.

In response to the growing pressure on Al-Hariri and on Saudi Arabia to back down on the issue of the tribunal, and in advance of the release of the indictment, the U.S. increased its statements of support for Al-Hariri and the tribunal. According to Lebanese media, President Barack Obama impressed upon the Saudi king the importance of backing Al-Hariri and the tribunal.[67] Furthermore, in early November, the U.S. pledged an additional $10 million for the tribunal, bringing the total U.S. funding for the court to $30 million. These moves and others were regarded by Syria as an attempt to sabotage the Syrian-Saudi efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis, as Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad said.[68]

Possible Scenarios

The uncertainty regarding Hizbullah's response to an indictment against it creates considerable difficulty for the organization's rivals in Lebanon and abroad. Some assess that Hizbullah will use the indictment as a pretext to take over Lebanon, as it took over Beirut in May 7, 2008. This assessment is supported by a November 1, 2010 report in Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, regarding a secret drill the organization had held on October 28. The drill simulated a takeover of Lebanon, including the deployment of forces countrywide within two hours, the cordoning off of extensive areas of the country, the arrest of wanted individuals, and the seizure of ports and border crossings.[69] It was also reported that Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has signed a memorandum of understandings with Hizbullah on military and security issues, which guarantees Hizbullah safe passage through the Mount Lebanon region.[70]

However, a takeover of Lebanon would harm Hizbullah's image as a legitimate organization that directs its resistance at Israel, so its threats may be largely intended to intimidate its rivals. Moreover, the political changes that have occurred in Lebanon in the past year[71] make it easier for Hizbullah and its allies to bring about a regime change by non-violent political means, making a violent takeover of the country unnecessary. Hizbullah's response depends to a large extent on Iran's situation, which can use the organization's threats as a lever in its negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.

Lebanon is preparing for every eventuality. Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Jean Kahwaji clarified that one of the army's tasks is to prevent internal fighting. He said that his forces are on high alert and have already deployed in the capital, and can go to full alert at an hour's notice.[72] However, MEMRI assesses that the power and control are in the hands of Hizbullah and its patrons, and that they are the ones who determine the intensity and scope of the conflict.

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 16, 2010.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 27, 2010.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 624, " Internal Conflict in Lebanon Over Control of Oil and Gas Resources," July 12, 2010, Internal Conflict in Lebanon Over Control of Oil and Gas Resources.

[4] Al-Jarida, Kuwait, August 25, 2010.

[5]Al-Watan (Syria),October 11, 2010.

[6] Moqawama.org, March 31, 2010.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 10, 2010

[8] Moqawama.org, March 31, 2010.

[9] Almanar.com.lb, May 1, 2009.

[10] Moqawama.org, March 31, 2010.

[11] Moqawama.org, July 17, 2010.

[12] Moqawama.org, March 31, 2010.

[13] Al-Watan (Syria), November 14, 2010.

[14] Moqawama.org, October 28, 2010.

[15] Moqawama.org, October 28, 2010.

[16] Al-Intiqad, Lebanon, November 5, 2010.

[17] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 14, 2010.

[18] Al-Hayat, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 28, 2010.

[19] Al-Rai (Kuwait), November 20, 2010.

[20] Moqawama.org, November 11, 2010.

[21] Moqawama.org, July 17, 2010.

[22] Moqawama.org, November 11, 2010.

[23] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 3, 2010.

[24] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 30, 2010.

[25] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 29, 2010.

[26] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 22, 2010.

[27] Moqawama.org, March 31, 2010.

[28] Moqawama.org, November 11, 2010.

[29] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 27, 2010.

[30] Moqawama.org, March 31, 2010.

[31] For excerpts from his speech, see MEMRI-TV Clip No. 2641, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Beirut Reiterates 9/11 Conspiracy and Accuses the West of Al-Hariri Assassination," October 13, 2010, http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/2641.

[32] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 20, 2010.

[33] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 15, 2010.

[34] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 20, 2010.

[35] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 31, 2010.

[36] Nowlebannon.com, August 4, 2010.

[37] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), August 25, 2010.

[38] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 20, 2010.

[39] WSJ.com, September 27, 2010.

[40] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 7, 2010.

[41] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 2, 2010.

[42] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 20, 2010.

[43] Al-Rai (Kuwait), October 23, 2010. It should be noted that, a few days after this statement was made, President Assad denied the existence of any tension between Al-Hariri and himself and expressed his confidence in Al-Hariri's ability to overcome the present crisis.

[44] Champress.net, October 24, 2010.

[45] Teshreen (Syria), October 19, 2010.

[46] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 6, 2010.

[47] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 12, 2010.

[48] An investigative report by the Canadian CBC channel claimed, based on documents from the U.N. investigation, that Al-Hassan had been suspected of involvement in the murder. www.cbc.ca, November 21, 2010.

[49] Al-Hayat (London), October 26, 2010.

[50] Al-Watan (Syria), November 15, 2010.

[51] Al-Hayat (London), October 26, 2010.

[52] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 6, 2010.

[53] Syriahr.com, November 14, 2010.

[54] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 21, 2010.

[55] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 19, 2010.

[56] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 6, 2010.

[57] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), November 11, 2010.

[58] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), October 26, 2010.

[59] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 30, 2010; Al-Watan (Syria), August 1, 2010.

[60] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 13, 2010.

[61] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 16, 2010.

[62] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 15, 2010.

[63] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 23, 2010.

[64] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 20, 2010.

[65] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis 547, " In South Lebanon, Tension Increases Between UNIFIL and Hizbullah-Syria-Iran Bloc," October 6, 2009, In South Lebanon, Tension Increases Between UNIFIL and Hizbullah-Syria-Iran Bloc,

[66] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 10, 2010.

[67] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), October 31, 2010.

[68] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), November 11, 2010.

[69] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3341, "Lebanese Daily: Hizbullah Drills Takeover of Lebanon," November 3, 2010, Lebanese Daily: Hizbullah Drills Takeover of Lebanon.

[70] Al-Anba (Kuwait), November 14, 2010.

[71] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 611, "Syria Reimposes Its Patronage over Lebanon," May 24, 2010, Syria Reimposes Its Patronage over Lebanon.

[72] Kataeb.org, November 6, 2010.

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