The German magazine Der Spiegel dropped one heck of a political bomb on Lebanon a few days ago when it reported that United Nations investigators are now fingering Hezbollah, rather than Syria, for the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination with a car bomb in downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005.
The story is based on information from anonymous sources “close to the tribunal” and documents of unknown authenticity. We don’t know yet if the lead is accurate. Intriguingly, though, the UN’s spokesperson for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon neither confirms nor denies Der Spiegel‘s report. If a potentially explosive accusation like this one were false, I’d expect the UN to deny it emphatically.
Someone in Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition may be hoping to use disinformation in Der Spiegel as a political weapon. These things happen. I’ve been lied to in Lebanon by people I trusted. It’s also possible that someone inside the UN thinks the people of Lebanon have a right to know what Hezbollah has done before they go to the polls next month and place assassins in the saddle in Beirut.
One of my own well-connected sources in Lebanon had this to say over email: "A rumor that the tribunal is going to end up issuing its indictments against Hezbollah, not Syria, has been floating around Beirut for the past month or so, and among highly credible sources. The impression I’ve gotten is that it would be largely a political move, a way to nail Hezbollah – and by association Iran – while largely letting Syria off the hook in the interests of promoting this fantasy-world ‘rapprochement’ with Damascus. Everyone I’ve heard discussing this still believes Syria did it. It’s a no brainer [sic] even if Hezbollah did play a role in carrying out the assassination."
It is strange that, according to the Der Spiegel report, the evidence no longer points toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. That doesn’t quite pass the smell test. It’s possible, I suppose, that the UN may want to whitewash or downplay Assad’s involvement for diplomatic reasons, to promote “rapprochement” with Damascus, as some Lebanese seem to think. What is far less likely – and, in my opinion, almost impossible – is a UN plot to indict Hezbollah on false pretenses. Either Der Spiegel’s sources are taking the magazine for a ride, or the evidence against Hezbollah is authentic.
Hariri’s son and Future Movement party leader Saad Hariri is being extraordinarily careful. “We will not comment on any press leaks that do not directly come from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” he said. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Hezbollah’s fiercest critic since Syria’s ousting in 2005, is cautious too. “We cannot allow what the Der Spiegel magazine released on Saturday to become another Ain el-Remmaneh incident,” he said, referring to the Lebanese civil war’s trigger in 1975.
Leaders of the “March 14” bloc could hardly ask for a more effective political weapon against Hezbollah during the run-up to the election next month, but they also couldn’t ask for one that’s more dangerous. Jumblatt is right to invoke the incident that ignited the worst war in his country’s history. Accusing Hezbollah of assassinating Hariri – and, by implication, of assassinating a number of journalists and members of parliament in the meantime – could easily do to Lebanon what Al Qaeda’s Samarra mosque bombing in 2006 did to Iraq.
“[I]f (the majority) uses the report against Hezbollah,” said former Carnegie Endowment scholar and Hezbollah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “then of course we’re going to see instability in Lebanon, and that’s putting it mildly.” “One word,” said Fadia Kiwan at Saint Joseph University, “could set the streets on fire.” “If the Special Tribunal for Lebanon comes out and confirms the report,” Carnegie Middle East Center Director Paul Salem said, “we could be facing an all-out civil war.” “If these rumors are true,” my own source in Lebanon added, “expect some extremely dark times ahead in Lebanon. After all, the Sunni street hates Hezbollah enough to begin with. Once Hezbollah is officially accused of assassinating Hariri, all bets are off.”
All this raises the question: if Lebanon could plunge into war should “March 14” cite an unsourced report prematurely, what might happen if the UN officially indicts Hezbollah later?
A furious revolution drove out Syrian occupation soldiers when Assad was the suspected culprit. It was possible, though, to revolt against Syria without using violence. Assad’s army was foreign and could be pressured to go home. Hezbollah lives in Lebanon. Hezbollah is already home. Hezbollah cannot withdraw. Hezbollah can only be disarmed or destroyed. And undefeated armies rarely, if ever, surrender their weapons.
Lebanese are good at compromise. “No victor, no vanquished” is the formula used to break deadlocks. The system breaks down, of course, when one faction tries to vanquish another. If Hezbollah is indicted for murdering Hariri and others, the country will be thrown into crisis. For it is neither possible nor desirable to compromise with, or compete in democratic elections with, a terrorist army that “votes” by murdering its political opponents with car bombs.