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Dr Musa A Keilani: Plunging into new crisis
July 05, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

As expected, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) has issued charges and arrest warrants in the investigation into former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri’s murder in 2005.

According to Lebanese media reports, the four suspects targeted by the arrest warrants are members of Hizbollah and include Mustafa Badreddine, brother-in-law of top operative Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a 2008 bombing in Damascus, Salim Ayyash, a Hizbollah member who holds US citizenship, and Hassan Anise, who has changed his name to Hassan Issa.

A similar indictment and warrants for other suspects is also expected to have been delivered to the Syrian government. It can be safely concluded that Damascus would not co-operate with the STL, which suspects Syrian officials of controlling the alleged Hizbollah team accused of carrying out the assassination.

What is uncertain is what options does the government of Hizbollah-backed Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati have over the STL move, which now calls for the suspects to be put on trial. Hizbollah has 18 seats in the 30-member Mikati cabinet, which was formed after Hizbollah engineered the downfall of the government of Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated prime minister, in January when he refused to call off co-operation with the tribunal investigating his father’s murder.

Mikati is not in a position to take an independent decision in the affair because he depends on Hizbollah for the survival of his government and the group has ruled out co-operating with the STL, which it accuses of being a US/Israeli weapon against it.

Mikati has been given 30 days to execute the arrest warrants. Clearly, he spent about five months making up his government and would have had enough time to contemplate what should be his response to the STL move.

His initial response on Thursday was clinical, clearly playing for time. There was no final word yet on who killed Hariri, Miqati noted. “The indictments are not verdicts,” he said, and all suspects are innocent until proved guilty.

However, stalling for time might not work, because the US has thrown its weight behind the STL; so have Western allies. If the governments of Lebanon and Syria reject the tribunal’s indictments and refuse to extradite the suspects and witnesses named therein for trial in the Hague, they would be referred to the UN Security Council for sanctions to enforce their compliance.

What makes the equation more complicated is the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Syria. The Syrian government has cracked down heavily on the protesters, with 1,300 dead, thousands wounded and 15,000 citizens made refugees in Lebanon and Turkey.

Damascus has moved on a parallel track to pacify the people and international community by allowing an unprecedented meeting of pro-democracy activists in Damascus last month, but the move was not very convincing. Activists are demanding political reforms that could not be accepted by the regime because compliance will mean the rooting out the domination of the Alawite sect in power and exposing its leaders to prosecution by the powers to be in Damascus.

Hence, the Syrian regime is putting up a no-holds-barred effort to fight off the challenge. It remains to be seen whether it will succeed in working out a political solution to the conflict (although it is highly unlikely).

Lebanese political leaders, including those of Hizbollah and others, are closely watching the developments in Syria since any upheaval there would have an immediate impact on Lebanon.

In the meantime, Iran is trying to muscle its way into the equation. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled that STL indictment as “null and void” being the work of a Western/Israeli tool seeking to undermine Hizbollah.

The deadlock threatens to plunge Lebanon into a new and violent crisis. The Lebanese government does not have the military power to challenge Hizbollah (which calls the shots in the government anyway). There does not seem to be any possibility at this point in time that the Hizbollah-dominated government could be brought down and the elements in the equation would be overturned.

On the other hand, many analysts cannot overlook the possibility that the Hizbollah members named in the STL charge-sheet are not guilty as charged. They could be victims of a frame-up or were conned into an Israeli operation disguised as a Syrian-led plot.

Doubts still persist over the Hariri assassination. Experts have asserted that there were many loopholes in any theory implicating Israel or Syria as being behind the killing. They have pointed to the sophistication of the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. They have said that Lebanese agents could not have had access to the technology and equipment that overrode several security precautions for the 16-vehicle Hariri convoy that was decimated in the remote-controlled bombing. It has since emerged that all cellphones were demobilised as routine within a one-kilometre radius of the Hariri convoy wherever it went.

Nobody can buy the hypothesis that since the original technology was Israeli then it followed that the know how to override it and allow a remote-control operation must have come from Israel, and the Jewish state could have used its agents in Lebanon to it carry out. But the most convincing argument is that Israel cannot have done it for one single reason which is that Rafiq Hariri had committed himself to make peace with Israel during his Sevre talks with French and American higher echelons.

In conclusion, the US and its supporters would definitely put up a stiff battle to have the STL order carried out whereas Hizbollah and its allies would wage an equally bitter fight against it. Fuelling the crisis and perhaps dragging Hizbollah into a new war will shake the status quo in the Lebanese political scene with the whole region suffering the ramifications.
The author, a former jordanian ambassador, is the chief editor of  Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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