- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon is likely to soon send draft indictments to the pretrial judge on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. For months, the government of Saad al-Hariri, Hariri’s son, has been paralyzed by tensions over the tribunal’s investigation and its legitimacy. Though they will not be confirmed for six to ten weeks, the results are expected to link Hezbollah and Syria with the assassination of Hariri. Michael Young, a Lebanon political analyst and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, says that the United States is trying to block efforts by Hezbollah, as well as by Syria and Saudi Arabia, to neutralize the tribunal’s findings.
What is the situation now regarding the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) looking into Hariri assassination?
The general consensus--and we have to see if it’s fulfilled--is that within the coming weeks, the tribunal’s prosecutor [Daniel Bellemare] will be presenting indictments to the pre-trial judge [Daniel Fransen]. The pre-trial judge will then probably take six to ten weeks to confirm those indictments. We will not know anything about the indictments until they’re confirmed. But within that period, the pre-trial judge has the option of holding hearings with the members of the appeals chamber on certain aspects of the law. This would be done to expedite the process. During that period, we may begin to hear elements of the prosecutor’s case, even if none of the indicted will be named. But the general expectation is that if draft indictments are presented in the coming week to two weeks, we will not have confirmed indictments probably until March or perhaps even April.
In 2005 and 2006, it was widely assumed that Syria was responsible for the assassination. Since then, there have been many reports in the press that members of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite organization backed by Iran and Syria, will be charged. How has this affected life in Lebanon?
What is happening is that Syria is allied with Iran and Hezbollah, but they are looking for openings in which they could, in a way, reassert more of their power in the country then they had in the last five years.
Hezbollah and its allies are basically trying to impose on Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri--the son of the late Rafik Hariri--a series of measures that would, in a way, begin a process of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the tribunal in the Hague. Saad Hariri has until now been resistant to these measures. Now, the issue is being played out at a higher level between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Saudi Arabia is the main backer of Hariri, and Syria of course is an ally of Hezbollah. We are in a political deadlock in Lebanon because what is effectively taking place is an effort to work out "a grand bargain" over the tribunal where Saad Hariri would be asked essentially to discredit the tribunal or take steps to discredit the tribunal officially in Lebanon. In exchange, Hezbollah is saying that if that happens there will be stability in Lebanon [and that] otherwise, there will be great instability. But this is a complex negotiating process and there are a number of states, including the United States, that will not accept any kind of compromise on the tribunal. We are effectively in a political deadlock, and I think this will last.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met January 7 with Saad Hariri in New York and expressed her support for the tribunal. An official who was present said that Hariri did also. Clinton also met with the Saudi king. So, obviously the United States has made it clear it would support the tribunal and opposes any "deal" to weaken it.
Yes, the United States was afraid about the negotiations behind the scenes between the Syrians and Saudi Arabia. While it’s not exactly clear what these negotiations will involve, there is a fear that the Saudis, in an effort to effectively bring the Syrians back politically to Lebanon--in such a way as to contain Iran--would possibly sign off on some kind of an arrangement with the Syrians that would lead to Lebanon’s discrediting the tribunal. The United States believes that this Syrian-Saudi arrangement would undermine the tribunal, and Clinton sought to make it very clear to Hariri--but also and more importantly to Hariri’s Saudi sponsors--that the United States would not accept such an arrangement.
How is all this received in Lebanon?
There is tremendous malaise politically in Lebanon, because the situation surrounding the tribunal has effectively frozen all other aspects of political life. The cabinet is not meeting because Hezbollah and its allies refuse to attend cabinet sessions unless the cabinet takes certain measures that will lead to the discrediting of the tribunal. So, effectively, politics are frozen here, and as far as most Lebanese are concerned, this issue is not going anywhere. They feel their daily life is not getting any better. The economic situation is not particularly good. People believe their country is being ignored and is being held hostage to the tribunal.
Can you elaborate on the economy?
Lebanon has an enormous public debt. Inflation is going up. As in other countries in the world, the prices of goods have gone up because the price of gasoline has gone up. This is a country heavily reliant on imports, so that many Lebanese today are feeling poorer. Electricity has been rationed, water has been lacking in the aftermath of the dry summer months. There’s a general feeling in Lebanon that the country is dysfunctional. And I’m thinking by and large that’s perfectly fair. The country is dysfunctional. The government needs to take measures, [yet] there are no politics, no policies being conducted largely because the government is not able to meet because of the tribunal.
This is because the government is so divided between the Hezbollah factions and the others?
Yes, precisely. Hezbollah expects to act as a special tribunal and consequently has effectively blackmailed the Lebanese government into taking measures that would discredit the UN tribunal or, the party says, it will simply not participate in political life. Its political allies have gone along with this.
What is Iran’s role in this?
The Iranians of course support Hezbollah, but what is taking place behind the scenes is an interesting dance between Iran and Syria. They are both allies; they will not stop being allies. But the Syrians would like to regain the political dominance they had in Lebanon before 2005. [Syria had troops stationed in Lebanon since the Lebanese civil war in 1976, but pulled them out after the Hariri assassination.] Today, the strongest actor outside Lebanon is probably Iran. What is happening is that Syria is allied with Iran and Hezbollah, but they are looking for openings in which they could, in a way, reassert more of their power in the country then they had in the last five years. One of the ways they sought to do so is through some kind of an arrangement with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, for their part, would like to see the Syrians come back politically because they feel that that is a better way to contain Iran and Hezbollah, which are both Shiite. It’s a very complicated situation. And the tribunal is becoming an instrument in this very complicated, regional bargaining over Lebanon.
In the midst of all this, President Obama appointed Robert Ford this month as interim ambassador to Syria, returning an ambassador to the embassy for the first time since 2005. Ford had been appointed last February, but the Senate never acted on his confirmation. Is this aimed at influencing Syria?
Today it seems that the telephone evidence is leading in the direction of Hezbollah. We’ll have to see if that’s confirmed when the indictments come out. But if it is confirmed, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t other circles of participation in the crime.
I was critical of the move, because I felt basically the United States had surrendered a key card without getting anything in exchange. The position of the Americans that at a key time, with the special tribunal about to issue at least draft indictments, it’s important to have someone in Damascus sending messages and also warning the Syrians that they not take any action to alienate the United States. That’s a rationale which I suppose one can make. I don’t [happen] to agree with it because messages can be sent in other ways. But perhaps the point of view in Washington was, "Let’s have someone in Damascus who can keep us well informed on what’s happening." I don’t think it was a coincidence that the United States and the secretary of State in particular did follow this up with a meeting with Saad Hariri and the Saudi king, making it very clear that there would be no compromises in Lebanon. I think the point that the American administration did want to make is, "We sent Ford back to Damascus, but this will not come at the expense of Lebanon." I hope that’s true. I think that there is a strong American position not to weaken the tribunal. We’ll have to see what happens in the weeks ahead.
The Obama administration has been quite supportive of the Hariri government. I know Vice President Biden went to Lebanon in 2009.
Let’s be a bit clear here. They’re not so much in support of the Hariri government as they are supportive of that part of the Hariri government which has basically stuck to the political lines of the United States. They’re not supportive obviously of Hezbollah, which is part of the government. Nor of the followers of the party of Michel Aoun, who supports Hezbollah. The United States is supportive of the prime minister, and in a way that’s fine, but it also shows the relative problems of dealing with the Hariri government, which is basically a very complicated mixture of very different political forces. It makes diplomacy very difficult for outside powers.
Why is Syria no longer regarded as being responsible directly for the assassination, at least as far as we know?
I don’t think that assessment is correct. A tribunal and a trial follow evidence, or available evidence. From the beginning, there was an assessment by UN investigators that there were several circles involved in the assassination of Hariri: There were those who had ordered the crime. There were those who had facilitated the crime. And there were those, presumably a suicide bomber, who had committed the crime. Today it seems that the telephone evidence is leading in the direction of Hezbollah. We’ll have to see if that’s confirmed when the indictments come out. But if it is confirmed, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t other circles of participation in the crime. It doesn’t mean that we’ve necessarily found the party that ordered the crime.
It’s perfectly plausible as a hypothesis to say that Hezbollah participated or facilitated the assassination of Hariri, but that the order was given by Syria and that both of them essentially participated in a crime where the assassin was a lone suicide bomber who was manipulated by one of these parties. This is a plausible hypothesis that seems to have been pursued by UN investigators. But where does the evidence today lead? The evidence seems to lead in the direction of Hezbollah, but I would be cautious until we have a confirmed indictment.