A United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri handed down indictments to prosecutors in Lebanon this week, naming four men with ties to Hezbollah. A tenuous calm holds in Lebanon, but there are fears that the tribunal’s findings and additional revelations about the assassination could further divide the country and tensions could spiral out of control.
In a Q&A, Paul Salem discusses the indictments, assesses the risk of conflict, and analyzes the regional implications. Salem says that the situation remains remarkably calm at the moment, but it is too early to say how it will all play out. This is the beginning of something big—there is a clear danger the situation could be inflamed down the road.
Who was named in the indictments?
Lebanon’s interior minister confirmed the indictments from the special tribunal and issued arrest warrants for four individuals linked to Hezbollah. Moustapha Badreddine and Salim Ayyash are both well-known senior Hezbollah figures. Badreddine is the brother-in-law of Imad Moughnieh, the former head of operations for Hezbollah who was killed a few years ago. And the other two named are Hassan Anaissy and Assad Sabra.
These names were leaked over the last few years as suspects in the investigation, so Hezbollah was out in front of the story. Hezbollah repeatedly argues that the UN-backed investigation is politicized and the tribunal is controlled by the United States and Israel. This media strategy allows Hezbollah to react to this week’s news by simply saying that things are transpiring just how the group predicted. It also means that these four men were hidden away long ago.
While the names are now public, the details of the indictment report remain secret. The tribunal’s report is almost 200 pages long and the content is still under wraps. But this information is likely to leak in the coming days and if there is convincing evidence that Hezbollah was intimately involved with Hariri’s assassination, it could impact public opinion and stir tensions and emotions.
At this point the country is remarkably calm even though this is a long-awaited moment. The statements from the different sides have been rather responsible and there has not been the immediate firestorm that some feared. This hopefully indicates that there will not be a huge escalation in tensions in the immediate future.
How has the Lebanese government reacted?
By issuing arrest warrants for the four individuals named in the indictments, the government has been playing the situation by the book so far. But the question is whether there will be any progress made in actually arresting the suspects as their whereabouts are unknown. This makes it easier for the government to cooperate—it can look credible in the eyes of the international community for issuing arrest warrants and not anger Hezbollah too much by not actually arresting anyone.
This is the first test for the new government and it pretty much happened on day one. The government was just formed with Hezbollah backing after the previous government led by Saad Hariri fell in January, mainly over the anticipated results of the tribunal. This long-standing and extremely difficult issue will be a heavy burden for the new government even though it knew in advance that this would be its most difficult issue.
The government’s situation looks stable for the near future, but it will be interesting to see if it ultimately survives—it’s too early to tell.
What is the significance of the indictments?
There are three important elements to consider when evaluating the importance of the indictments—internal, regional, and global. The arrest warrants make the situation within Lebanon more difficult, especially if there is convincing evidence that Hezbollah is responsible for Hariri’s assassination. If Hezbollah was shown to be clearly behind the assassination, it will be a challenging thing for the political system to absorb.
But it is also important to remember that Lebanon has been deeply split for many years. The current government is made up of different political parties that have chosen to ally with Hezbollah even though they know that Hezbollah could have been involved with the assassinations. In other words, people have already made their decisions to a certain extent.
This is not a complete game changer, but it does heighten tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities in Lebanon. The evidence could become a flashpoint issue down the road if things become more tense. So while it is calm in Lebanon today, the tribunal’s findings can easily be exploited in a much more emotive way in the future.
We also do not know if these are the only people held responsible. It is still possible that there are other indictments identifying individuals in other countries. There has been speculation that Syria could soon be issued with indictments, but it is not clear if that is the case or not. If there are Syrians indicted, it would be another important factor to consider. Syria is already mired in a deep internal crisis and if a set of indictments from an international court linked to the Security Council are delivered, the international community and regional powers could put even more pressure on Syria.
It is also important to consider the possible international repercussions of the indictments. Beyond Lebanon and Syria, this is a global judicial process. If Lebanon does not arrest the four Hezbollah figures, tensions with the international community could rise and actions could escalate on a soft trajectory. We have already seen movement in recent weeks in the U.S. Congress to stop military aid to Lebanon. How this latest development plays out will impact these and other similar steps.
How will Syria and Iran—Hezbollah’s two international backers—respond?
Syria will keep a distance from the details of the indictments. Damascus clearly backs Hezbollah and the current government so it is obviously present politically in Lebanon, but it will try to be as far away from the discussions about the arrest warrants as possible. Syria says that this is an internal Lebanese issue and if any Syrians were ever indicted they will be dealt with internally through the Syrian judicial system.
Iran will continue to back Hezbollah. For a long time Tehran has said that the special tribunal is a completely politicized instrument of the United States and Israel—just the same as the Hezbollah line. The indictments will not change the relationship.
What role will Saudi Arabia play?
One of the reasons for the calm situation in Lebanon today is the warmer relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Saudi Arabia is grateful for Syria’s cover on how Riyadh handled the unrest in Bahrain. And Saudi Arabia has been tolerant and supportive of what is going on in Syria. Riyadh is not eager for revolution in Syria as it does not want to see the Arab awakening spread around the region.
While Saudi Arabia was unhappy when the Hariri government fell earlier this year, Riyadh clearly started leaning on its allies in Lebanon not to escalate the situation against Syria when the Arab Spring began to take off with speed. And this more or less still seems to be the case.
This is a significant reason for why the indictments are not being exploited right now. But there is a legitimate fear that under different political circumstances the tribunal’s findings can be used as a huge weapon if someone wants. This could ultimately bring down the government if forces were aligned to do something in the future.
What should the international community do?
The first step is for the international community to insist that the Lebanese government cooperate with the tribunal. This is exactly what Lebanon is doing by issuing arrest warrants. But if there are no arrests made, then it becomes less clear. It gets into politics and not simply a judicial process.
If it becomes evident that Hezbollah was involved and if these people cannot be found or arrested, it should not end there. Hezbollah is a powerful force and there needs to be a real effort to find the four men. There needs to be pressure on Hezbollah, Syria, and the Lebanese government to accept responsibility for this and hand the suspects over. Also, there is an obligation on the part of Syria and Hezbollah who were controlling things at the time of Hariri’s death to admit to general responsibility and then there can be a new discussion on political arrangements.
On the judicial side, the fact that this is the first time that there may be justice done in Lebanon over political assassinations is a positive step. But there also needs to be a way forward on the political side. Nobody wants sectarian war and there needs to be responsibility taken for the assassinations in 2005. While Lebanon has been through a civil war before, it found a way to get beyond it after there was some admission of guilt.
Will the indictments have any relevance for the Arab Spring?
While many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are forging new futures, Lebanon is still dealing with the consequences of a set of assassinations that took place six years ago. The contrast is interesting as Lebanon still seems to be mired in its past internal conflict.
But this is certainly a new phase in Lebanese politics. The country has been waiting for the indictments for years and it is now in the next stage where it needs to deal with the actual results. We do not yet know how the “post-indictments Lebanon” will play out.