Tensions remain high over this issue, although there are intensive negotiations among Lebanese politicians—and involving the leaders of other countries from the region—to try and find compromise on this very tense crisis.
Well, there are several scenarios facing Lebanon, many of which will play out before the indictments are released. Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, is expecting the indictments to come out before the end of the year and they are pressuring Saad Hariri, the prime minister, and his government to take a position on the tribunal before the indictments come out. They want that position to include a denunciation of what the investigation and tribunal has done so far, or at least cast doubt on it, and they want it to include a freeze on Lebanon’s financial and judicial cooperation with the tribunal. They want this to happen before the indictments come out and they will probably try to do more try to make that the case.
There are various options Hizbollah could take to this end. Currently there is a lot of political rhetoric and political pressure. They could raise that pressure by boycotting the government or by freezing government decision-making and the parliament, which would paralyze the state fully. They could also encourage civil disobedience which might include closing the roads or airports to add pressure. The other option they have if they want to raise pressure even further would be to use armed action—arresting people, taking over parts or all of the city and the capitol—as they did in May of 2008.
So Hizbollah has a number of options but is reluctant to use them because they don’t want a sectarian clash between Shia and Sunnis in Lebanon. They also don’t want the current prime minster to resign because they want him to give them the concession, not a new prime minister. So it’s a delicate game.
If the indictments come out after the Lebanese government was forced to make these concessions, perhaps the release of the findings will not have a massive set of repercussions. Given Hizbollah’s influence in the government, the government will likely not be able to proceed with any arrests or judicial response in Lebanon in support of the tribunal because the opposition, which has a controlling vote in government, would block that.
If the indictments come out soon, with the climate still as tense as it is today and without any concessions or compromise, passions will likely be enflamed among the Shia and Sunni communities and it could lead to uncontrolled violence. It is very unpredictable although both parties are trying to avoid that.
How are the key regional players involved in Lebanon?
The regional players are playing a very significant role in Lebanon and in this crisis. Syria has repaired its relations with the current prime minister, Saad Hariri, who is the son of the assassinated former prime minister. However, Syria is backing Hizbollah and is opposed to Lebanon’s ties to the special tribunal, so it’s sort of playing both sides of the fence with the prime minister. Syria would probably like Saad Hariri to stay prime minister but to concede on the issue of the tribunal. But the prime minister is holding firm on the issue so far.
Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which is the patron and the main backer of the prime minister, have improved over the past months. They worked together during the Iraqi elections and the government formation process, and they’ve been trying to work together in Lebanon as well. Saudi Arabia figures that by working with Syria, it can help protect and promote the interest of its Sunni communities in Iraq and Lebanon.
There was a falling out in Iraq after Syria fell in line with the Iranian choice for prime minister in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, and relations deteriorated, and that might cause a deterioration of relations over Lebanon as well. Saudi Arabia does not want the situation in Lebanon to explode into sectarian warfare but they are also do not want to concede on the major issue of the special tribunal in Lebanon because it is part of international legality—it’s linked to the Security Council of the UN—and it would be very problematic for Lebanon and Saudi Arabia for Lebanon to break its ties with the tribunal. So there are a lot of negotiations between the Saudis and the Syrians on this.
The Iranians, of course, are also very involved. They are the main backers of Hizbollah and are very critical of the special tribunal. Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon a week ago, and aside from his visit to the south, which was very much focused against Israel, his visit to Beirut to see the president and other officials emphasized conciliation and the need to find negotiated solutions to Lebanese crises. So he in a way lent his voice to a negotiated outcome to the tribunal issue.
But tensions remain high despite regional attempts, both contentious and negotiated.
Is the Lebanese government maintaining good relations with Syria?
Syria has certainly regained a lot of influence in Lebanon, in part because it maintained strong allies in Lebanon, led by Hizbollah. After the rearming of Hizbollah in 2006, a number of other allies in Lebanon that were allied with Hizbollah became allies with Syria.
What has added to Syria’s influence was a policy shift by Saudi Arabia, who had in previous years backed the March 14 movement, which was antagonistic to Syria. They did so to weaken and oppose Syria. But in 2008, Saudi Arabia realized that Hizbollah and its allies were more powerful than the March 14 groups. When Hizbollah overpowered the March 14 movement in Beirut in May, Saudi Arabia realized that the threat from Hizbollah was real and overwhelming. The same was true of their conclusions in Iraq, where their early support for Sunni groups in Iraq to counter Syrian and Iranian influence backfired as well.
After Syria withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, Iran, not Saudi Arabia and the United States, gained influence in the vacuum. So Saudi Arabia calculated that to protect their Sunni allies and manage or reduce Iran and Hizbollah’ s direct influence, they would prefer to deal with Syria and try to coax Syria closer to their position—not necessarily to break with Iran, but to build the relationship. And hence they are working with Syria in Iraq and in Lebanon, and that has led initially to Walid Junblatt, the leader of the Druze community, to reorient fully to rebuilding relations with Syria.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri is also trying to rebuild relations with Syria, but Syria, however, is demanding more of him. Syria is demanding that he get rid of most of the advisors who surrounded him when he was pursuing an anti-Syrian policy, and they’re pressuring him to step away from the tribunal. So, while Syria is rebuild relations with him, they are also trying to denude him of what he has stood for so long. So far he is holding firm, but he’s in a very difficult position.