By Sami Moubayed
Saudi King Abdullah’s landmark visit to Syria on Thursday, his second since assuming the throne in 2005, mirrors Arab diplomacy at its finest hour.
The king is worried – just like his Syrian host President Bashar al-Assad – about two critical files in the Arab world: Iraq and Lebanon.
In Iraq, political rivalries have prevented creation of a cabinet for five months, signaling a political vacuum and security disaster in the weeks to come that would be very troubling for Syria and Saudi Arabia, two of Iraq’s main neighbors.
The situation in Lebanon is even more dangerous and if allowed to explode could shake the Middle East beyond repair. Earlier this summer, the deputy Israeli chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi said that an earthquake was in store for Lebanon later this year, when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) names Hezbollah figures in connection with the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hezbollah, furious with the accusation, cried foul play, claiming that the entire investigation is flawed because it has relied on false witnesses (who were never arrested or questioned for their motives) and because it never considered Israel as a possible suspect in the Hariri affair.
Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah came out accusing the tribunal of being “an Israeli project” that aimed at targeting the Lebanese resistance. What Israel failed to achieve through war in 2006, he added, it will try to attain through the STL.
The international community, with strong Israeli encouragement, tried to break Hezbollah through United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, in 2004. That clearly did not work and nor did the war of 2006, which promised – and failed – to annihilate Hezbollah.
Today, four years down the road, Hezbollah is stronger than ever and, even by testimony of Israeli military strategists, seems have been left almost unscratched by the war of 2006. The war rumored to take place this summer is no guaranteed success for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and it cannot shoulder another defeat at the hands of the Lebanese guerrillas.
It seems only logical that Israel would try to nail the Lebanese group through the Hariri affair, hoping that this would shatter the current alliance between Hezbollah and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the second son of Rafik, along with creating havoc between Lebanese Sunnis and Shi’ites.
The handwriting has been on the wall for nearly four years now, first surfacing in a French publication in 2006 then vibrating throughout upper echelons of power in Beirut. However, it has never been so bluntly debated in public and the media.
After an article in Le Figaro blamed Hezbollah for the Hariri murder, another report in a Kuwaiti daily was published in March 2009, followed by a very controversial report in Der Spiegel in May 2009. Der Spiegel, while refraining from naming a single source, said that a “special force” from Hezbollah had “planned and executed the diabolical attack” under orders from a certain Hajj Samil (no last name), who it described as Hezbollah’s second-in-command and head of a special operational unit.
Le Monde repeated the accusation in February 2010, followed by Ashkenazi last June. Hezbollah says that it can never take the tribunal seriously so long if Ashkenazi knew of its verdicts beforehand. This would only confirm what Nasrallah has been saying all along: that the international investigation is a vehicle aimed at tarnishing Hezbollah’s image and trying to finish what was started in 2004 and 2006 by resolution 1559 and the 33-day war respectively.
It seems a steady case is being prepared against Hezbollah by its opponents, both at home and in the international community. It started in November 2009 when a German ship was apprehended by the Israelis, who claimed that it was carrying Iranian arms to Hezbollah.
Then came the April 2010 affair when Israel said that Hezbollah had received long-range Scud missiles from Syria. Now comes the STL which will say that Hezbollah officials were responsible for Hariri’s murder.
Hezbollah claims that ultimately Israel is trying to create a situation where Lebanon erupts into chaos and becomes hostile territory for the group. If it is accused of killing Hariri, the premier would be forced to distance himself from Hezbollah, who are crucial pillars of his coalition cabinet. Perhaps – if Israel gets its way – he would need to revoke a cabinet pledge to “protect and embrace” the arms of Hezbollah.
Ultimately, many in Hezbollah fear that someone will resume political assassinations in Lebanon so as to blame them and set the stage for a thundering declaration of their guilt in the Hariri assassination.
If the predictions turn out to be correct, and such an indictment is released later in 2010, several options would be on the table. One is for the UN to place Lebanon under Chapter Seven, which gives the Security Council the right to take military action to maintain security. The UN could claim that the 23 Hezbollah figures earmarked for accusation are a threat to international peace.
If this happens, Hezbollah will certainly refuse the verdicts and so will the Lebanese state, perhaps prompting the international community to wage war on Lebanon. Another option would be for the Lebanese government to try talking Nasrallah into a trade-off; meaning the figures named would be accused of acting at their own will and not as members of Hezbollah.
Nasrallah has repeatedly said that such trade-off is absolutely not on the table, refusing to even discuss the option that his party had been infiltrated by undisciplined warriors. A third option – and this is where Syrian and Saudi Arabian diplomacy can come into play – would be for Saad Hariri to come to his senses and repeat what Nasrallah has said – that the STL is an Israeli project that needs to be drowned at any cost.
In his capacity as both son of the slain prime minister and the current premier of Lebanon, Hariri could deprive the STL from any legitimacy.
Both Syria and Saudi Arabia refuse to see Lebanon slip into chaos. The Saudis have too much at stake in Lebanon, politically, emotionally, financially and morally, to see their ally crash so abruptly. Saad simply cannot hold on to his post without full Hezbollah support and in order to maintain it, he needs to take sides against the STL and put his full weight behind Hezbollah.
If this means turning his back on the STL and anti-Hezbollah allies like the Lebanese Forces council president, Samir Geagea, then this is a price the premier would be – should be – willing to pay to keep Lebanon safe and united. The Syrians made it clear to Saad during his last visit to Damascus that Hezbollah is a red line that cannot be crossed.
They will never tolerate any international meddling with the arms, reputation, or future of Hezbollah. According to media reports, the Saudi king and Syrian president will head to Beirut on Friday to hammer out a solution to the boiling crisis in Lebanese politics. Only these two Arab heavyweights can talk Saad Hariri into a u-turn on the STL.
Sami Moubayed is Historian, political commentator and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in Asia Times on July 30, 2010 entitled, “Hezbollah sees plot behind Hariri Tribunal.’’