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Yacoubian: Linkages between Special UN Tribunal, Lebanon, and Syria

Interviewee: Mona Yacoubian, Special Adviser, Muslim World Initiative, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 1, 2007

Mona Yacoubian, a former intelligence analyst for the State Department, says the special UN tribunal to investigate the assassination in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is linked to the politics of Lebanon and Syria, with the Syrians trying to sow enough chaos to prevent the tribunal from ever getting underway. As it is, she says, the tribunal is unlikely to launch before next year.

The UN Security Council voted to establish a special tribunal to look into the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria’s being inundated with Iraqi refugees; they’ve just had staged elections, raising political questions about their leadership. And then Lebanon’s government has been paralyzed for months. Are these questions all connected?

The issue of the UN tribunal, the political crisis in Lebanon, and certainly the role of Syria are very much interlinked. Essentially, the tribunal lies at the core of tensions that have been escalating in Lebanon over the past several months. The tribunal is an outgrowth of an independent UN investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. There have been two investigators, Detlev Mehlis, a German, and Serge Brammertz, a Belgian, who in the course of their investigations have pointed to a strong possibility of Syrian involvement in the assassination, via the Syrian security services as well as their allies and proxies in Lebanon. Within Lebanon it has been at the crux of disputes between the current government and the opposition in Lebanon which has allied itself with Syria. The head of that opposition is of course Hezbollah, the Shia militia.

Let me just interject a question here: Why would the Lebanese opposition align itself with Syria , knowing that Lebanese nationalists would really prefer Syria to stay out of Lebanon?

It’s a great question, and I think that, in fact, the Lebanese opposition has been very astute in their opposition to the tribunal. They said they’re not opposed to the tribunal per se. They say they have issues with the way in which it’s being constituted. They claim it’s going to be used as a tool to exact vengeance on the opposition, which has stood opposed both to Hariri, the late former prime minister who was assassinated, and now his son, Saad Hariri, who has taken up the reins left behind by his father. So their opposition on paper has been more to the details of the tribunal than the tribunal itself. But we need to understand this tribunal in a much broader context; that is, by understanding better the very changing role of Syria in Lebanon. In a funny way, all of those tensions have come to be embodied in this tribunal proposal.

Syria pulled its troops out in the months after the assassination, but that did not end Syria’s involvement in Lebanon, did it?

It did not. The two countries in some ways are organically linked. Syria, harkening back to the Ottoman days, officially does not even recognize any border between the two countries, nor are there embassies exchanged between the two countries. Beyond that, there are also familial ties that cross borders, and strong economic links. Lebanon has been a very important outlet for surplus Syrian labor.

How extensive is Syria’s influence in Lebanon, however, without the troops?

The Hariri assassination was a watershed event and came to essentially redefine Syria’s role in Lebanon. As you mentioned, given the outcry following the assassination, Syria was forced to withdraw their military after thirty years in Lebanon. The era of formal Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, I would say, ended with the assassination of Hariri. The Syrians have now found themselves scrambling to assert their influence in a variety of ways, often in destabilizing efforts in Lebanon in the aftermath of their forced withdrawal.

The assassination was linked to Syrian officials in the initial reporting. 

That’s right, and this has explained Syria’s fierce opposition to the tribunal. Indeed, the Syrian government-run newspapers this morning expressed strong opposition to the tribunal. The Syrian government has said it will not cooperate. In many ways, the tribunal represents almost an existential threat to the Syrian regime.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union without even blinking an eye would have vetoed the resolution because Syria was one of its biggest friends in the Middle East.

That’s right, there was a lot of speculation about how Russia would respond to this proposed Security Council resolution that was sponsored by the United States, Britain, and France. There was much thought that Russia could veto it, but in the end Russia and China [both permanent members of the Security Council], ended up abstaining from the vote. Essentially, no one has issues with the perpetrators of the murder being brought to justice; there are huge issues that both the Russians and the Chinese have expressed with regard to intrusions on Lebanese sovereignty. Actually, even the South Africans have expressed concerns and reservations about the meaning of this resolution. The response of the Americans and the British is essentially that this resolution comes about at the request of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, whose efforts to move a tribunal forward within the Lebanese Parliament—which would be the normal constitutional way for doing this—have been blocked. Almost out of desperation and because there is a political impasse in Lebanon, Prime Minister Siniora then went to the United Nations  and made a request that a binding resolution—hence the fact that it’s been taken under Chapter Seven [of the UN Charter]—be passed in order to move this tribunal forward.

Now this tribunal is separate from the International Criminal Court, right?

That’s correct. The actual details of the tribunal are still a bit unclear. As I understand it, it would be undertaken in a third country, likely Cyprus. It would be what is described as a “mixed tribunal” with both Lebanese and international prosecutors and judges. The tribunal would not only investigate Hariri’s assassination, but also look at some fourteen other politically motivated killings that have taken place in Lebanon beginning in October 2004.

So do you think the tribunal will actually be set up?

There is, in deference to the Russians, a June 10 deadline. If the Lebanese government could come to some sort of agreement on an internal tribunal by June 10, there will be no need for this international tribunal. The chances of that are essentially nil. Once that June 10 deadline passes, the question of how long it would take to actually get this tribunal up and running is a big question. I would imagine it would take some months, frankly, to have it operational.

So it may be well into next year?

That would be my guess.

Let’s talk a bit about the political crisis in Lebanon.

The political crisis in Lebanon has its roots in the assassination of Hariri. There were these massive protests that resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Those protests came known as the “March 14 movement,” which is a day where a huge number of Lebanese troops came out into the street. Once the Syrians withdrew, that was then followed by elections which resulted in a parliament that was dominated by this March 14 movement of Sunnis, and Druzes, and some Christians, and marked by an anti-Syrian stance. They then formed a mixed cabinet which included some ministers that were appointed by Hezbollah. Essentially, this issue of the tribunal has continually bogged down this government to the point that when the cabinet was on the verge of approving a tribunal, the Hezbollah cabinet ministers withdrew from the government, leaving a rump government which was unable to move forward with the tribunal proposition.

This was in November 2006. Since that time, Lebanon has been deadlocked in a stalemate which has at times turned quite violent. Hezbollah is essentially demanding new elections and the reformation of a government that would more accurately reflect its proportion of power. They have had demonstrations, and actually a “tent city” was erected in the center of Beirut in protest last December.

It’s still there?

Yes. So the issue is very much at a stalemate. There have been sectarian riots and violence in Lebanon as a result of this as well as car bombings and so forth. Many predict that with the passing of this resolution and the movement toward a tribunal, one can expect more violence and tension in Lebanon in the coming months.

Talk briefly about the situation in Tripoli in the northern part of Lebanon.

In the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, there was and continues to be clashes with a rather shadowy group known as Fatah al-Islam. This group of an estimated two hundred to three hundred fighters is actually not Palestinian. Many of the fighters hail from other countries; for example, they are Syrian and even Iraqi. They appear to subscribe to an ideology that is very similar to that purported by al-Qaeda. One would almost say they are a foreign implant in the camp battling with the Lebanese army. This clash followed what was frankly a bank robbery undertaken by members of Fatah al-Islam. They fled back into the camp, they were pursued by Lebanese forces, but the Lebanese army is not allowed to enter the camp as one of the rules governing the Palestinian refugee camps.

There has been a very vicious battle going on since May20. Now this whole situation in Tripoli is important because there are some real questions about the provenance of Fatah al-Islam. Its leader, actually, had been imprisoned in Syria for a couple of years because he was linked to the assassination of an American aid worker in Jordan. He has had linkages in the past to [terrorist Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, and essentially he was released from prison in Syria and within six months he turned up in this refugee camp in Tripoli. There are questions as to whether there are some murky linkages to the Syrians and the Syrian security services and whether this is part of a broader destabilization effort being undertaken by the Syrians in response to the tribunal and other issues.

Do you think the Syrians are hoping against hope they’ll have enough chaos in Lebanon that they’ll be asked to come back in with the troops?

I certainly think that’s possible, or at a minimum, there’s enough chaos and instability in Lebanon that the tribunal becomes derailed or that there’s no possibility of moving forward with it. But I don’t know that I could imagine a situation in which they would actually be invited back in with their troops given the rather destabilizing role the Syrians have been playing.

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