US Senator John Kerry is set to arrive in Beirut today before moving onto Damascus tomorrow, a trip that exemplifies the circular complexity of the Levant. In 2005, after the assassination of Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri, the US withdrew their ambassador from Syria. Severing relations with the Assad regime acted as an implied accusation of Syrian culpability and finalized the transition of Syria into part of the Bush Axis of Evil. Half a decade later, Syria is still solidly aligned with Tehran and Hezbollah, but it is also looking to close the gaps with some of its harshest critics; Obama is set to send an ambassador back to Damascus while Assad has worked tirelessly to secure better diplomatic standing with Riyadh.
[tweetmeme] The political evolution that has taken place in Lebanon and Syria over the last five years is, potentially, deceivingly disastrous. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is an independent investigatory organization specifically created to discover the truth behind the Hariri assassination and seems set to release indictments to the International Criminal Court (ICC) later this year. Though the rapprochement between Damascus and both Washington and Riyadh seems to be nothing but productive, the resulting circumstances severely limit the Lebanese government and society. If the STL indicts Syrian officials or Hezbollah members – Hezbollah is tightly allied with Syria – the resulting anger could have dire consequences for Lebanon.
The foundation of Lebanese politics have not changed much in the last five years. The Sunni block – now led by Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad – is still aligned with Riyadh while the Shi’a bloc is still tightly coddled by Syria. After the assassination there was an important bifurcation of Lebanese politics into the March 14 alliances and the March 8 alliance, with the former, led by the younger Hariri, pushing for Syrian withdrawal and the latter, led by Hezbollah, pushing for a continued relationship with Lebanon’s Syrian neighbors. Although Syria no longer militarily occupies Lebanon, the two countries are still extremely close.
As a consequence of the rapprochement between Syria and the US and Saudi Arabia, the pro-Western March 14 coalition – which won elections last year – has been forced to take a less hostile stance towards Syria. As the coalitions main external supporters made nice with Syria, Hariri found it politically necessary to follow suit. Last year, Hariri even made the well-worn path from Beirut to Damascus to meet with the man who many consider to be responsible for the older Hariri’s murder. Druze leader Walid Jumblat – who called Assad a “butcher” in 2007 – is expected to make a similar trip later this month. Indeed, the Saudi and American effort to draw Syria away from Iran has seemingly undermined the ability of Lebanese Sunnis to criticize Syria.
This new platform of forced reconciliation between the Lebanese Sunnis and Syria becomes more important as the STL comes closer to finishing its investigation and handing out indictments. Last year the German news magazine Der Spiegal published a detailed story linking Hezbollah to the murder of Hariri. While the story created a buzz and forced past anger and grief to return to the surface, it has not yet led to any indication by the STL that Hezbollah is actually behind the assassination.
Last week rumors began to swirl again when the STL brought six members of the Shi’ite organization in for questioning. Signs seem to all be pointing to the obvious: Hezbollah (and most likely Syria) were behind the assassination of Hariri and the STL knows it.
Given the money already poured into the STL and the possible precedents it could set, the Lebanese government has an obligation to continue to support the Tribunal (not to mention that the PM has a personal interest in bringing his father’s killers to justice). Yet the implications for a successful completion for the tribunal are not hard to predict. Last week former minister and current Syrian mouthpiece Wi’am Wahhab warned that indictments of Hezbollah officials could create severe sectarian strife in Lebanon and warned Hariri to “avoid the trap of the International Tribunal.”
Now the leaders of the March 14 coalition are in an awkward spot. Forced by personal history and by the pressure of their western backers to continue to support the STL, they are also being pressured into reconciliation with those that the Tribunal will likely indict later this year. If Hezbollah is indicted, the Sunnis would be given a release valve for the frustrations have built up since the assassination.
In 2007, Syrian President Assad warned UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon that the tribunal “could unleash a conflict which would degenerate into civil war and provoke divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea.” Though this might have been a slight hyperbole, implication of Hezbollah and Syria in the murder of Rafiq Hariri would certainly renew the anti-Syrian sentiment of 2005 and the anti-Hezbollah sentiment of 2008 in the hearts of many Lebanese. Predictably, the unity government of Saad Hariri would dissolve as Hezbollah and March 14 found more disagreements and there would be an even stronger push for the nearly impossible disarmament of the Shi’ite group.
So what to do? The Lebanese government is morally, personally and politically motivated to support the STL, whose findings will likely bring sectarian strife and the possibility of renewed violence along with a sense of justice. In this sense, the STL represents the drive for justice that simply won’t go away.