Negotiating with Murderers
Hezbollah attempts to impose its will in Lebanon by force.
By William Harris
February 1/07

Lebanon may be the complicated little cockpit of Middle Eastern affairs, but the country’s crisis in its latest phase, manifested in the deadly street violence of January 23 and 25, is terrifyingly simple. The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad looks to escape a Lebanese murder rap that could bring it down and thereby also gut the anti-Western alignment of Baathist Syria, Islamist Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Damascus remains desperate to blunt the U.N. inquiry into the assassinations of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese critics of Syria’s ruling clique, and to neuter the U.N.-sponsored special tribunal proposed to prosecute the murderers. This tribunal would have a mixed panel of international and Lebanese judges, and sit outside Lebanon.

In line with Syrian desiderata, a coalition of Syria’s allies, agents, sub-contractors, and fellow travelers within Lebanon has campaigned to destroy the present Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Sinyora. The campaign began with the resignations of pro-Syrian ministers on November 12, 2006, the moment the government moved to endorse the U.N.-drafted protocol of the proposed murder tribunal. The Hezbollah-led pro-Syrian coalition has manipulated all sorts of sentiments to pull protesting crowds onto the streets, from resentment of the bourgeois elite to insinuations that the parliamentary majority is the tool of America and Israel.

The underlying drive, however, is transparent enough. For example, on December 21, 2006, the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported Hezbollah’s requirement that Sinyora agree to change murder tribunal articles relating both to the responsibility of a superior for the actions of subordinates and also to an investigation into the connection of other political murders to the Hariri crime. Al-Hayat also quoted a “top Syrian leader” as saying that “Syria will not accept the continuation of the tribunal project … in its present form.” Hezbollah has made it clear to Arab League mediators that a new “national unity government” with built-in veto power for the pro-Syrian coalition must precede any Lebanese consideration of the murder tribunal.

Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed on January 24 that he can remove the Sinyora government, which retains a membership of one minister above the two-thirds quorum required for constitutional viability, any time he pleases — “tomorrow or the day after.” This threat should raise eyebrows everywhere. The only way to topple Fouad Sinyora with such dispatch is either through the assassination of two more ministers or through a violent coup, with gangs of thugs invading the government offices to kidnap the prime minister, followed by Nasrallah’s ally President Emile Lahoud appointing a replacement.

Otherwise, Nasrallah’s remarks indicate that Hezbollah does not take pro-government forces seriously. The reality is that the inflammatory rhetoric of Nasrallah and his Maronite Christian ally Michel Aoun has driven Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, not much less in number than the country’s Shia Muslims, to the wall. Most Sunnis have rallied behind a Sunni prime minister under siege, especially as the other top officers of state — the Maronite president and the Shia parliamentary speaker — are respectively a puppet and a hostage of the Syrian regime. The coalition behind Fouad Sinyora comprises the overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s Sunni and Druze communities, at least half of the Christians, and a minority of Shia fed up with Hezbollah’s absolutism. This is probably more than half the country. If Hezbollah has become so convinced of its infallibility and so infatuated with its own propaganda that it can only conceive Lebanese who don’t agree with it as phantoms or traitors, then it really has gone beyond the point of no return. Fouad Sinyora should not waver in the face of such arrogance, and the international community should not waver in supporting him.

Arab League mediators have suggested an adjusted Lebanese government in which the opposition coalition of Hezbollah, Aoun, and others receives a share expanded to one-third of seats, with an independent personality to hold the deciding vote on critical issues. To avert civil war, the Arab League suggestion is reasonable, especially if it is part of a package in which the September 2004 extension of Emile Lahoud’s presidential term, dictated by Syria and condemned in U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, is immediately terminated. What is not reasonable is that the protocol of the Lebanese/international murder tribunal become subject to rewriting by Syria’s allies. Whatever happens to the government, the tribunal protocol should proceed directly in its present form to the Lebanese parliament, a parliament endorsed by the international community as the legitimate product of May/June 2005 democratic elections. There is no doubt that the parliamentary majority will approve the protocol. The pro-Syrian coalition loudly asserts that it wants a “clean” government; if what it wants in fact is a government that dilutes a U.N.-sponsored tribunal so that murderers and those who arrange for murders can evade justice, then it is difficult to imagine a dirtier government.

Any change to the guidelines of the tribunal in the manner apparently desired by Hezbollah would subvert U.N. Security Council resolutions. First, resolution 1595, which established the U.N. inquiry into the Hariri murder, calls for “organizers and sponsors” as well as “perpetrators” of “the terrorist bombing” to be brought to justice. What force could this have if the follow-up tribunal is to be restricted from pursuing the “organizers and sponsors” of the “perpetrators,” for example if heads of regimes can parade their immunity? Second, resolutions 1644 and 1686 request the U.N. inquiry to examine other bombings and political murders in Lebanon from October 2004 onward, for interconnection with the Hariri case. Again, what is the purpose of these investigations if the tribunal is to be restricted in taking them into account? The drafting of the tribunal protocol involved laborious negotiations between U.N. and Lebanese legal experts, and every member of the Security Council reviewed the text. If Lebanon cannot approve the existing draft because of Syrian orchestrated obstruction, the Security Council has the option of establishing an international tribunal without Lebanese participation.

The Syrian regime looks to stretch time and precipitate chaos. Damascus wants consideration of a murder tribunal to be postponed until after completion of the U.N. inquiry, which could delay indictments for an extra year or more. Syria thus hopes to see off Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, and thereafter to enjoy “realist” horse-trading with more congenial French and American presidents. In the meantime, more weapons flow across the Syrian/Lebanese border to Hezbollah and other Syrian friends. Hezbollah’s fortified mini-state in southern Lebanon prospers amid a Shia population devastated in the Party of God’s recent war with Israel. Both Syria and Hezbollah fret at the constraint on their options for military diversions represented by the enlarged U.N. force on the Lebanese/Israeli border authorized under U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the July/August 2006 hostilities. Damascus has put incoming foreign soldiers on notice of the fate of the 1983 multi-national force, stampeded out of Lebanon by suicide bombings.

In Beirut, Hezbollah has warned the pro-government side not to bring its masses to central Beirut for the February 14 second anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s killing. In Hezbollah’s political lexicon it seems that only one side has the right to free assembly and free expression. If Syria and Hezbollah have their way and the murder inquiry and tribunal flop, Lebanese democracy will assuredly die and the murder machine will have a new lease of life.

— William Harris is a professor of political studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand