Friday, August 6, 2010

Horse-trading before violence in Beirut


by Michael Young


In a speech Tuesday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah promised to prove next week that Israel assassinated the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. A pity he didn't do so a few years ago, as this would have spared Lebanon, and his own party, many a headache.

We shouldn't lose track of the fact, however, that Nasrallah's speech, coming on the same day that Lebanese and Israeli units clashed on the southern border, was part of a broader horse-trading process that preceded the Lebanese-Saudi-Syrian summit last week in Beirut, but that was also heightened by it. This horse-trading involves several issues: the future of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; Hizbullah's arms; and Syria's longing to revive its hegemony over Lebanon 

There was much speculation that when Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Syria's President Bashar Assad visited Beirut, they came with some sort of package deal in hand that would stabilize Lebanon. Even the theatrics of the summit seemed to suggest that stern messages were being disseminated: the king going off with Prime Minister Saad Hariri; Assad sitting down with Hizbullah parliamentarians. This was a misreading. Hizbullah showed few signs of wholeheartedly endorsing the reassuring bromides issued from the summit, let alone a specific deal, and Nasrallah made the point in his speech that Lebanon awaited the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the same spirit as it did those of the Arab leaders. In other words the party was really bound only by what Iran said.    

It's no secret what Hizbullah wants in the near future. The party insists that the Hariri government end its cooperation with the special tribunal, which it has described as an "Israeli project." For Nasrallah the tribunal threatens to neutralize his party as an Iranian military extension. This is unacceptable to Hizbullah's leader, whose contract with Iran requires that he be prepared to act on Tehran's orders at all times. 

What of Saad Hariri and the tribunal? From the moment the prime minister visited Damascus last December, it was plain that he would be willing to bargain over the institution. But Hariri wants something very substantial in return for doing so, which likely means a mechanism allowing the state to exert control over Hizbullah's weapons – most desirably through the party's integration into the army.

As for Syria, it is playing both sides to its own advantage: on the one hand Assad seeks to impose Syria's writ in Lebanon, partly over Iran's, which means bringing Hizbullah in line with Syrian priorities. His way of doing so has been to collaborate with Hariri while acquiring an Arab blessing to reassert Syrian domination in Beirut. On the other, Damascus is unhappy with the special tribunal and also wants Hariri to break with it, even if Assad has exploited the prospect of an accusation against Hizbullah to expand his influence.

That the tribunal has become so central an object of negotiation, and therefore discredit, is a testament to the utter incompetence of the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, in communicating his aims effectively. Bellemare has lost control over perceptions of the tribunal's work. It is no surprise that he seems not even to have replaced his previous spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, herself an object of criticism before she stepped down last May; and if he has, then it tells us even more that no one knows who that person is.   

There are reports that Bellemare recently sent a letter to states involved with the tribunal, indicating that he was working on several leads, that his work had progressed, and, allegedly, that the evidence would speak for itself. However, it seems he did not mention indictments, leading an increasing number of observers to speculate that he might come out with something short of that: the naming of suspects and maybe a request that the Lebanese authorities arrest them. Why Bellemare was unable to issue that letter publicly, or some redacted version of it, is incomprehensible. The prosecutor, like his predecessor, Serge Brammertz, has taken secrecy to a level where it is actively undermining the integrity of his investigation.

That is no small thing in the context of the political tensions in Beirut. Nasrallah may eventually overreach in trying to cast doubt on the tribunal, but for now he is scoring points because Bellemare has been completely absent from the game. And this is allowing the Hizbullah leader to use the tribunal as political leverage domestically.

Bellemare will, understandably, stay clear of Lebanese politics; but nothing prevents him from making a statement clarifying generally what the Lebanese can expect and explaining that his work is backed up by a United Nations consensus, therefore cannot possibly be an Israeli plot. For the prosecutor to restate his bona fides would not mean ensnaring himself in Lebanese micro-affairs. But to remain ostrich-like about what is happening in Lebanon is also to miss the point that the case he is investigating was always eminently political. 

With Hizbullah, Hariri and Syria all reacting to the tribunal in a way that might advance their specific political or military agendas, whatever Bellemare says and does will have a major impact on their political interactions. But all this really means is that we may be in an early phase of negotiations, with the serious haggling only coming once everyone determines what the prosecutor has in hand. This tends to play down the possibility of violence in the near future. 

However, the absence of violence is only tangentially the result of the overinflated summit of last week. Syrian assurances are rarely worth much, and it's entirely plausible that Damascus might join Hizbullah in pushing Hariri to cut Lebanon's ties with the tribunal. However, we're not there yet. Everyone is waiting to see what the otherwise undetectable Bellemare has to say, and if he has much to say at all. 


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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