Commentary

Lebanon on the Brink…Again?

Middle East In Focus

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Five years since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, sectarian and political peace in Lebanon remains tenuous. At the root of recent fears that Lebanon could descend into a new civil war is the anticipated release of an indictment by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which many believe will implicate Hezbollah and its allies.

In an Al Jazeera report, Suleiman Franjieh, the leader of the Marada movement, is cited saying, “If the indictments come out against Hezbollah in the trial of the Hariri assassination, there is war in Lebanon. ... Today the atmosphere is just waiting for a spark.” Others have warned that “Beirut residents are arming themselves in expectation of a flare-up of violence between the two main antagonists in Lebanon today: Hezbollah and its allies on the one hand, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his supporters on the other.”

While fears of a full-blown civil war may be somewhat exaggerated, it is clear that the potential findings of the UN Tribunal have put a strain on the work of the government. Led by Hariri’s son, Saad, Lebanon’s unity government is composed of an unlikely and unstable alliance between Hariri’s March 14 movement and Hezbollah. The Lebanese Daily Star reported that “in an interview on Saturday, Future Movement (FM) MP Nouhad Mashnouq asked Hariri to ‘resign from his post [and] refrain from forming another Cabinet unless it is capable of being productive.’” While the request was quickly rejected by others, it is likely that, as the work grinds to a halt, calls for Hariri’s resignation might multiply.

The Christian community, which could tip the balance between the two factions (Sunni and Shia) is itself almost evenly divided. A recent report finds that “twenty years after the 1975-90 civil war, while under no specific threat, as a community Christians are weak and divided. Even now, electoral-law vagaries mean that many Christian lawmakers depend on Muslim votes to get elected. Mired in the rivalries of their own politicians, Christians are disunited. Some back the powerful Shiite Hezbollah group. Others support Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri's Sunni bloc.”

An investigation of such immense consequences is bound to be controversial and meet with resistance. However, the tribunal apparently has done little to allay charges of incompetence and the pursuit of a political witch-hunt aimed primarily at Hezbollah and its allies. The Lebanese Daily Star reports that “the spokesperson for the prosecutor in the UN probe … resigned on Tuesday, citing ‘personal reasons,’ in the latest blow for the beleaguered court. Henrietta Aswad had worked as the spokesperson for STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare for just 20 days, having replaced Radhia Ashouri on September 8.” Tribunal Registrars Robin Vincent and David Tolbert, Chief Investigator Naguib Kaldas and Judge Howard Morrison have also left the court.

Recently a Syrian judge “has issued arrest warrants for more than 30 people accused of misleading an investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister,” following the botched arrest of four pro-Syrian generals in the immediate aftermath of Hariri’s assassination. Saad Hariri also recently distanced himself from the tribunal by taking back “his long-standing accusation that Syria killed his father, saying that allegation was politicized.”

Hezbollah has also been keen to undermine the work and legitimacy of the court. Gulf News reports that “the leader of Hezbollah accused the UN tribunal … of protecting ‘false witnesses’ who allegedly misled the investigation. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah cited the case of four former Lebanese generals jailed for nearly four years in connection with the killing before being released for lack of evidence last year. He noted that the court agreed to let one general see his secret case file, but the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, appealed the decision.”

In a bid to further impede the work of the tribunal, “Hezbollah and its allies have sought to block Lebanon’s funding of the STL by threatening to vote in the Cabinet against the 2011 draft budget article relating to the issue.” The move forced the UN Secretary General’s spokesman to promise that the Security Council would provide the funding, should the Lebanese government be unwilling to do so.

Hezbollah’s efforts and influence in Lebanon were given a further boost by the most recent visit to the country by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khaleej Times writes,

The Iranian president is wading into Lebanon’s worst political crisis in years by putting Teheran’s weight behind Hezbollah as the group feuds with its rivals in Lebanon’s Western-backed political coalition. That tension threatens to bring down the fragile unity government in which both serve and, in a worst case scenario, push the well-armed Hezbollah to violently seize control of Beirut, as it did in a similar showdown two years ago. 

Others suggest that, following Ahmadinejad’s visit, “Hizbullah is widely expected to step up its campaign against the tribunal in the coming months, and some have predicted that the visit could herald a new, more confrontational stage, perhaps widespread civil disobedience.”

This has made some regional actors, especially Saudi Arabia, nervous, due to its uneasy relationship with Iran. In a meeting that took place in September, the Saudi ambassador to Beirut emphasized that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is keen on maintaining unity and solidarity among all Lebanese for the sake of safeguarding the country's stability. … Ali Awad Assiri, speaking during a meeting with a Hezbollah delegation at the Saudi embassy, said gates of the diplomatic mission building would remain open for all Lebanese parties”

Saudi Arabia has also accelerated cooperation with Syria, to prevent any deterioration of public order in Lebanon and the increase of undue influence on the part of Iran. Only days after Ahmadinejad’s visit, Saudi and Syrian leaders held discussions in Riyadh for the second time this year. According to a Syrian diplomat, “On the question of the situation in Lebanon, talks would make the Lebanese political forces realize that they see themselves as guarantors of stability. The Saudi and Syrian push will go a long way in helping the process of peace, security and unity in Lebanon in particular and the Middle East in general.”

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