By James M. Dorsey
World Politics Review
An increasingly vicious battle that has broken out between pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon is likely to determine the country's ability to resist Syrian interference in its internal politics.
Also at stake in the conflict is the future of a United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The assassination sparked a protest movement that blamed Syria for Hariri's killing and forced Damascus to withdraw its troops after a nearly 30-year presence in Lebanon. The anti-Syrian groundswell paved the way for Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son, to become prime minister. Syria and its ally, the Shiite militia Hezbollah, have both denied involvement in the former prime minister's death.
The latest battle erupted when Saad Hariri refused to cave in to demands by Hezbollah and Syria to withdraw his support for the U.N. investigation, which has polarized Lebanese politics from the outset. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem cautioned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a meeting in New York on Monday that Syria would oppose the issuing of indictments by the U.S.-backed U.N. Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL). Speaking after the meeting, Moallem charged that the tribunal had been irredeemably "politicized" and risked plunging Lebanon into a new round of sectarian strife.
Hezbollah, concerned that the tribunal will accuse some of its operatives of involvement the assassination, believes that a withdrawal of support by the prime minister would all but thwart the inquiry. Hezbollah officials maintain that the investigation's expected conclusions are based on false testimony by key witnesses, a claim backed by the Lebanese judiciary and Prime Minister Hariri. The Shiite militia says it has evidence that Israel killed Rafik Hariri, and it wants the tribunal to investigate its assertion.
Hezbollah and Syria appeared to have won their battle earlier this month when Hariri, giving in to pressure from the militia, backed away from his accusation that Syria was responsible for the death of his father. In a stunning statement that infuriated many of his followers, Hariri apologized to Syria, saying his previous repeated accusations had been "politically motivated."
For Hezbollah and Syria, however, that was not enough. "We gave Hariri and the coalition until September to bring the STL down," a Hezbollah official said. "That has not happened. We will now deal with the STL differently. There will be no cooperation, no acceptance, and no funding." Hezbollah, which has two ministers in Hariri's cabinet, urged the government last week to stop funding the tribunal.
Hezbollah and Syria tightened the screws on Hariri by encouraging Brig. Gen. Jamal al-Sayyed, the former Lebanese security chief, to publicly denounce the prime minister as a liar and accuse him of paying witnesses to make false statements. Al-Sayyed demanded that Hariri take a lie detector test. Hezbollah officials privately claim that former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former President Amin Gemayel and the head of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea are among those who gave false testimony. Al-Sayyed, known for his close ties to Syria and Hezbollah, was released from prison last year along with three other officers, all of whom had been held for four years without charges on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder.
Al-Sayyed issued his statement three days after meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Few in Lebanon doubt that Al-Sayyed would have picked a fight with Hariri without Syrian endorsement. The statement came only days after Hariri visited Syria for talks with Assad, which the Lebanese prime minister described as "excellent" and as "opening a new phase in our relations."
A shift in relations between the two countries could well be underway, although not as Hariri envisioned when he left Damascus. By raising the stakes, Syria and Hezbollah appear to be driving a wedge between Hariri and some of his key supporters. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father is believed to have been killed by Syria in 1977, cautioned last week that "if the STL is creating a crisis, let us all agree on canceling it."
For now, however, Hariri is playing hardball. Lebanese state prosecutor Said Mirza has ordered an investigation of Al-Sayyed on charges that he threatened Hariri and state institutions. Sources close to Hariri say Al-Sayyed attempted to blackmail Hariri, demanding that he be paid $7.5 million in exchange for not going public with his accusations against Hariri. Al-Sayyed has countered by filing a lawsuit against the Lebanese state prosecutor in a Syrian court and at the UN tribunal.
The crisis heated up when Hezbollah, which also accuses the tribunal of being "politicized," said that it would not allow Al-Sayyed to be questioned by the Lebanese judiciary and warned that it would "cut off the unjust hand" threatening the general. Hezbollah raised the temperature further by sending an armed escort to pick up Al-Sayyed from the Beirut airport on his return from Damascus.
Hezbollah's show of force and Al-Sayyed's allegations leave the prime minister on the horns of a dilemma. To preserve Lebanon's fragile balance of power, Hariri may have to cave in to Syria and Hezbollah's demands on the tribunal. But doing so could split his ruling coalition and put him at odds with the Obama administration. On the other hand, should he refuse to disavow the tribunal or arrest Al-Sayyed, Hariri risks increasing tensions and raising the specter of renewed sectarian violence. Either way, Lebanon is at a crossroads.