Political Theatre and the STL

Nasrallah's speech revealed little other than the power of Hezbollah and the danger it can pose to peace in Lebanon

With reports circling that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) could soon deliver the results of its years long investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri and the rumors that members of Hezbollah could be indicted, many in Lebanon are worried.  There are fears that an indictment of Hezbollah could force the Shi’ite militia to once again stand up to the government (a la 2008) or worse that the country could descend into civil war and bring a Syrian presence back.

It is with this background that Sheikh Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah took the stage last night to deliver one of his finer, and more dramatic, political speeches.  In his two-hour speech, as promised, Nasrallah tried to present evidence that it was – surprise – Israel behind the assassination and not Hezbollah.  Apparently, Hezbollah attained the capability to plug into Israeli video feeds from unmanned drones that repeatedly provide intelligence on Lebanon for Israel.  Nasrallah used various clips from this footage giving proof that Israel had been monitoring the area where Hariri was murdered.

[tweetmeme] The evidence presented, admitted Nasrallah, was not conclusive.  It did, though, cast perhaps the slightest shadow on the presumed findings of the STL and gives Hezbollah the option of maintaining innocence in light of a possible accusation by the STL.  As Elias Muhanna predicts, there will be a lot of talk about this speech and the ‘material evidence’ given by Nasralleh – though the ‘evidence’ did not prove to be particularly revealing.

The most telling aspect of the speech was not the evidence or the accusation that Israel killed Hariri.  Rather, perhaps the most important revelation yesterday was that Hezbollah had the capability to tap into Israeli video feeds.  This shows how advanced the capabilities of Hezbollah are and, as is noted here, demonstrated yet again how Hezbollah is probably more technologically advanced than the LAF.

The problem in an accusation of Hezbollah by the STL is the potential to discredit such a powerful organization in the eyes of Lebanese and other Middle Eastern powers.  As Nasrallah’s speech and the recent clashes between the LAF and the IDF demonstrated, Hezbollah is both more powerful than and more connected to the LAF than anytime in recent history.  A tarnished Hezbollah could lead to a violent break in the uneasy alliance.  Back to Muhanna:

Public opinion on these questions is far more important than one would think. As Nasrallah himself suggested toward the end of his press conference, the political value of an indictment against Hizbullah members lies less in the potential for implicating senior officials or foreign governments than in the ability to tarnish Hizbullah’s image in Lebanon and throughout the Sunni Muslim world. By presenting an alternative narrative to the version of events that will be laid out, presumably, in the coming months by the U.N. prosecutor, Nasrallah is attempting to paint the STL — in the most vivid colors possible — as an American/Israeli tool targeting the resistance.

In the eye of the storm is Saad al-Hariri, the victim’s son and Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, who has been the primary champion of the STL’s mission to find and punish his father’s killers. On the eve of an indictment, the tribunal that helped Hariri build the political movement that he leads today now threatens to place him in an impossible position. Far from strengthening his hand in Lebanon and promoting the interests of his international allies, Hariri is faced with the possibility that the multi-million dollar, five-year investigation will deliver a verdict that he must publicly denounce, or else risk losing control of the country.

Caught between the need to maintain his political position and the determination to prosecute his father’s cause, Hariri’s ultimate decision about the STL is likely to determine whether Lebanon continues along its current path of cautious consensual politics, or whether it finds itself, once again, on the brink of a major sectarian conflict.

Though entertaining as always, Nasrallah’s declarations will presumably have very little influence on the likely outcome of the STL.  It will, perhaps, give both Hezbollah and PM Saad Hariri some wiggle room in what will inevitably be an impossibly tight position between peace and justice.

Photo from Foreign Policy

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