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Trial by Fire: The Politics of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

It is hard to see who can emerge victorious in Lebanon's latest crisis. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) dealing with the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri soon will issue its first indictments. As speculation grows that its members will be named, Hizbollah has warned of firm action if the government, now led by the victim's son, Saad Hariri, fails to denounce the tribunal. If the prime minister complies, he and his partisans would suffer a devastating political blow. If he does not, consequences for them and the country could be more ruinous still. If Hizbollah does not live up to its threats, it will lose face. If it does, its image as a resistance movement may be further sullied. There are no good options, but the best of bad ones is to find an inter-Lebanese compromise that, by distancing Lebanon somewhat from the STL, preserves the country's balance of power without wholly undermining the work the tribunal has done so far. Saudi Arabia and Syria reportedly are working on such a scheme. It would be prudent for others to support such efforts and suggest their own ideas. The alternative is to either wake up to a solution they dislike or try to upset the only credible chance for a peaceful outcome.

Hope that the STL might become a significant precedent for international justice region-wide dissipated as the probe became enmeshed in, and contaminated by, a vicious local and regional tug of war. From inception, the international investigation was promoted by an assortment of Lebanese and non-Lebanese players pursuing a variety of goals. Some sought revenge and accountability, others to deter future political assassinations and bolster Lebanon's sovereignty. A few (notably France and the U.S.) saw an opportunity to promote a lasting political realignment in Beirut by strengthening a pro-Western alliance, dramatically lessen Syria's and its allies' influence there or even – a goal nurtured more in Washington than in Paris – destabilise the Syrian regime. There was, too, hope of a breakthrough in the Arab world for international justice principles and an end to the culture of impunity. The result was a remarkably wide consensus among actors who converged on a narrowly defined judicial process, resting on the assumption that Syria was guilty, and that its guilt could and would be established beyond doubt.

To invest such high expectations in the investigation was both slightly unfair and exceedingly optimistic. They rested on a series of misjudgements – about the effective balance of power in Lebanon; about Syria's ability to withstand pressure and isolation; and about the probe's capacity to deter future assassinations, which continued unabated. Nor did the international inquiry's promoters appear to fully take account of the time lag between their hurried political objectives and the tribunal's far slower pace.

In the years between Hariri's assassination and the moment the tribunal came to life, the Lebanese and regional contexts changed in dramatic fashion. Syria withdrew from Lebanon and, far from being ostracised, was being courted again, notably by France but also, to a lesser degree, the U.S. The 2006 war plainly established Hizbollah's military potential, deepened Lebanon's internal rifts and damaged the West's Arab allies. Hizbollah's brief May 2008 takeover of Beirut, followed by the Doha accord between duelling Lebanese camps, ratified a new domestic balance of power, ushered in a national unity government and hastened the fragmentation of the pro-Western, anti-Syrian coalition led by Saad Hariri and known as March 14. Following Saudi Arabia's footsteps, Hariri himself achieved a measure of reconciliation with Damascus.

Something else changed in the intervening period – the identity of the presumed culprit. As recent media leaks suggest and as Hizbollah's own statements confirm, operatives belonging to the Shiite movement are now widely anticipated to be the first indictees. For March 14, the STL once more turned into a precious instrument in the domestic confrontation and, for its foreign backers, a tool with which to curb the Shiite movement. For Hizbollah, the tribunal became a matter of life-and-death, seen as another in its foes' serial attempts to defeat it: accusations accepted as legitimate in Lebanon and the region could seriously damage its reputation, liken it to a mere (albeit powerful) sectarian militia, revive perilous sectarian tensions and rekindle efforts to disarm it.

Thus began an intensive, relentless campaign by Hizbollah and its allies to discredit the tribunal and intimidate those who might support it. Aided by some of the probe's initial missteps, the Shiite movement successfully polarised and politicised the situation so that, even before indictments have been handed down, public opinion in Lebanon and the Arab world already has made up its mind: there are those who are convinced the STL is a blatantly political instrument doing Israel's and the West's bidding, and there are those who are persuaded of Hizbollah's guilt. However credible or thorough the indictments, they are unlikely to change this much. Hizbollah threats to take unspecified action also loom large.

Nothing good can come of this. Some within March 14 and its backers believe the Shiite movement is bluffing, that it cannot afford to provoke a confrontation lest it bolster the very image of itself as a sectarian militia it fears the indictments will promote. Hizbollah and its supporters seem to think, conversely, that Hariri will cave in to pressure, cut all ties to the STL and denounce its allegedly political agenda. Both scenarios are theoretically plausible, neither is likely. The Shiite movement, having warned of catastrophe, can ill afford to do nothing; Hariri, having taken the helm of the Sunni community, would pay a heavy price for turning his back on the murder of the man who was both his father and that community's pre-eminent leader. Banking on Hizbollah's tameness or Hariri's capitulation will only encourage the two sides to stick to uncompromising positions that could push Lebanon to the brink.

Riyadh and Damascus are said to be working on a compromise. Details remain murky, but one imagines possible scenarios. Lebanon could request the Security Council to halt STL activities once indictments have been issued, for the sake of domestic stability. It could condition further cooperation with the tribunal on its taking certain steps (eg, foregoing the option of trials in absentia; agreeing to look into the so-called false witnesses affair). Or cooperation could continue even as Lebanon expressed serious doubts as to the basis of its findings. A compromise should be accompanied by a collective agreement to allow the prime minister to govern more effectively – something he systematically has been prevented from doing.

Such a deal would not be neat, and it would not be pretty. Hizbollah would not get all its wants. But for Hariri to surrender could be political suicide and, by weakening the community's leader, might pave the way for violent action by Sunni groups angered at the denial of justice. March 14 would not be satisfied either, having to accept real limitations on the STL's work. But for it or its allies to stand in the way would risk provoking the very outcome about which they fret, namely more aggressive Hizbollah action leading it to greater, not lesser, political clout. What, then, would March 14's foreign allies do?

Hizbollah's reputation has been tarnished, and it is unlikely soon to be restored. March 14 once more is showing its fecklessness and the huge imbalance of power from which it suffers on the ground; that too will not soon be remedied. The tribunal will not achieve the loftier goals many projected onto it. No winner will come out of the current battle. What is necessary is to ensure the Lebanese people do not emerge as the biggest losers of all.

Middle East Report N100-2 Dec 2010
Beirut/Brussels, 2 December 2010

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