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Friday, July 1, 2011

Hariri indictments doom Lebanon if it does, and doom if it doesn’t

A billboard shows a picture of assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri with the emblem of the Special Tribunal For Lebanon (STL) and Arabic writing that reads ‘Justice is my right’ near the town of Balamand, north of Beirut. (GETTY photo)

A billboard shows a picture of assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri with the emblem of the Special Tribunal For Lebanon (STL) and Arabic writing that reads ‘Justice is my right’ near the town of Balamand, north of Beirut. (GETTY photo)
An indictment by a United Nations-backed special tribunal of four members of Hezbollah on charges of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been issues at a worse moment for Lebanon, the militant Shiite movement and its embattled backer, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

The indictments give the United States and Europe added leverage in their efforts to force Mr. Assad to halt his brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters and initiate far-reaching political and economic reforms. It also allows the Obama administration to refocus international attention on Hezbollah not only because of its close ties to Syria but also because of its militant animosity toward Israel and its involvement in alleged terrorism. Hezbollah has long figured on the US list of designated terrorist organizations.

Both Hezbollah and Syria have repeatedly denied any association with Mr. Hariri’s killing. Hezbollah has denounced the tribunal as a creation of the United States and Israel and has charged that its investigation involves false witness statements.

Mr. Hariri’s supporters believe he was killed by Syria and its Lebanese ally because he asserted Lebanon’s independence in a direct challenge to Syrian influence.

The indictments further allow the United States to put the newly appointed Cabinet of Lebanese prime minister Najib Mekati on the spot. The Obama administration has been wary of the new government because it is dominated by Hezbollah.

Mr. Nekati came to office this year after Hezbollah forced the collapse in January of the government headed by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain billionaire businessman-turned politician in what was seen as a significant restoration of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon who had been in the country for 30 years in the wake of the Hariri killing.

The court and the Lebanese government have yet to release the identities of those indicted. Media reports however identified one of the suspects as Salim al-Ayyash, a dual Lebanese and US citizen who is believed to have headed the cell responsible for the bombing of Mr. Hariri’s convoy.

By indicting members of Hezbollah, the court has reopened debate on whether and to what degree Syria was involved in the killing of Mr. Hariri and 22 others in a massive car bombing in 2005. UN sources say the court could still indict Syrian nationals in the case.

The Obama administration was quick to welcome the indictments and urge the Lebanese government to act on them. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the indictments and four arrest warrants marked “an important step toward justice and ending impunity for political assassinations in Lebanon. It’s important that the indictments now handed over to the special prosecutor now be acted upon. Obviously we want to see this chapter in Lebanon’s history closed, and that closure involves taking the next steps,” Mr. Toner said.

The court has given the Lebanese government 30 days to arrest the suspects. That is a tall order in a nation that bears the scars of 15 years of civil war and whose parliament is dominated by Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies, who have vowed not to tolerate being associated with killing of Mr. Hariri.

If that were not enough, Hezbollah is the only Lebanese militia that has refused to disarm and it outguns the Lebanese armed forces.

For Syria, the indictment means that it can expect increased Western pressure and could face calls for even tighter sanctions. The United States and Europe have already slapped sanctions on Mr. Assad and his closest associates because of the government crackdown on the protesters.

For Hezbollah, the indictment makes a bad situation worse. Hezbollah is worried that the possible of downfall of Mr. Assad could deprive it of one of its two major backers. That would not only leave Hezbollah with only Iran as a supporter but could weaken its position in Lebanon if Syrian influence were to diminish because of its domestic turmoil.

The prospect of an indictment of members of Hezbollah has long been a festering sore in Lebanese politics. Now that they are fact, the indictments put Mr. Mikati and his government between a rock and a hard place. Acting on the indictment puts him in direct confrontation with Hezbollah and risks dragging Lebanon into renewed civil strife. Failure to act puts him at odds with the United States, the United Nations and Mr. Hariri’s supporters whose Cedar Revolution forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Mr. Mikati has already suggested that his priority is to ensure that the indictments do not spark renewed violence in Lebanon. He is certain to be strengthened in his resolve by Mr. Assad. That however could prove to be as risky as seeking to comply with his responsibility to arrest the suspects. The United States is unlikely to let Mr. Milkati do so unchallenged and neither is the slain prime minister’s son.

In a message to his supporters from Paris, Saad Hariri declared that justice had been finally done and that those responsible for his father’s murder would not be able to escape their due punishment. The message was clear: Mr. Hariri’s are likely to make their insistence that the government act on the indictments heard on the streets of Beirut.

The upshot is that Lebanon more likely than not is well on its way to become the next Arab country to be racked by turmoil. It doesn’t really matter what Mr. Mikati does. He is doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t.

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