Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sectarian power play could tip Lebanon's balance

Lately, attention in Lebanon has been focused on the tribunal established to uncover the assassins of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. However, this past weekend saw an important, if still symbolic, step in a related but less-discussed matter: domination of the Christian, particularly the Maronite Christian, community, and the implications for Lebanon.

On Saturday, the Lebanese Forces, once the leading Christian militia and now a political party, held its annual mass in honour of combatants killed during the 1975-1990 civil war. The party's leader Samir Geagea delivered a speech in which he observed that Lebanon was on the verge of a coup, a reference to Hizbollah, which has threatened dire consequences if the government of Saad Hariri continues to cooperate with the special tribunal. Mr Geagea positioned himself as a supporter of the tribunal, then, revealingly, issued a call to rank-and-file partisans of his Maronite rival Michel Aoun to rejoin with the Lebanese Forces in defence of common political principles. Mr Aoun, once a foe of Hizbollah, has since become its partner.

Mr Geagea's address was a gamble. On the one hand he was making a bold bid to become Lebanon's leading Maronite figure. Although Mr Aoun commands a sizable following, his credibility has suffered in the past year. Among Aounists, an old guard is disgruntled that Mr Aoun is transforming his movement into a family affair. Within the broader Christian community there is unease about his ties to Hizbollah and Syria (where Mr Aoun was visiting on the day of the Lebanese Forces ceremony). Mr Geagea feels that once Mr Aoun, who is in his mid-70s, passes from the scene, the Aounists will fragment so now is the time to start attracting a portion to his side.

On the other hand, even as Mr Geagea presented himself as the embodiment of the Christians' mindset and defiance, he knew that his comments about averting a Hizbollah coup once again made him a leading target for the party and Syria. Indeed, the Lebanese Forces have been relentless in their hostility to both, earning Mr Geagea an 11-year prison sentence during the years of the Syrian military presence. In other words, Mr Geagea not only picked a fight over Christian influence, he picked one he cannot afford to lose, otherwise he may find himself alone if his enemies win.

Mr Geagea has taken on a risky role in what remains of the anti-Syrian coalition known as March 14. In the years after Rafiq Hariri's murder, his son Saad had headed the opposition to Syria, the leading suspect in the crime. This lasted until the reconciliation last year between Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri's political sponsor, and Syria, which compelled the Lebanese prime minister to make peace with the Syrian president Bashar Assad. Since then, the Syrians and their allies have sought to break Mr Hariri away from Mr Geagea, both to divide the remnants of March 14 and to isolate Mr Geagea. It has long been a Syrian priority to weaken the Maronites, usually through a divide-and-rule strategy, for being a stalwart bastion of anti-Syrian sentiment.

There is something else. Mr Geagea has the reflexes of a military commander. A son of the hardscrabble mountain town of Bisharri in the north, the Lebanese Forces leader runs his movement in a centralised way. A natural organiser, Mr Geagea has rebuilt his party into a major political force despite his long incarceration. To Hizbollah, as obsessed and guarded as he on matters of security, Mr Geagea is a potential military rival. To Syria, he represents an eventual rallying point for an independent-minded Christian community that Syria mistrusts.

For example, Damascus doesn't appreciate that Mr Geagea and Mr Hariri maintain close ties, with the Lebanese Forces leader providing the prime minister with manoeuvring room on his right. Ironically, many Sunnis who loathed Mr Geagea during the civil war now regard him with some respect for standing against Hizbollah. The Christian population has declined in Lebanon, so that the country is now largely shaped by Sunni-Shiite dynamics. However, that does not mean that the Christians have become marginal. Mr Aoun's rapprochement with Hizbollah decisively crippled the anti-Syrian coalition led by Mr Hariri between 2005 and 2009; while Mr Geagea's tough line today concerns Hizbollah and Syria for creating political space from which the Sunnis, too, can challenge their dictates. Mr Geagea has been especially irritating for forcefully supporting the special tribunal.

With Hizbollah and Syria re-imposing their hegemony over Lebanon, can Mr Geagea survive, politically or otherwise? One will hear that the Lebanese Forces leader is a "red line" for the Americans, who will not allow him to be harmed; but such assurances mean little after Rafiq Hariri's killing. Mr Geagea has money, a key source of patronage and political influence. Above all, Mr Geagea knows that if he is attacked, particularly if he is attacked militarily in the Christian heartland, his undecided co-religionists might rally to his side.

It might be too much to affirm that Lebanon's fate is tied into that of Mr Geagea. However, what happens to the Christians will undoubtedly affect the balance between the Sunnis and Shiites, which in turn will determine how powerful a role Syria can play. Lebanon is an intricate country and much is decided between the sectarian cracks, where one might otherwise not bother to look.

Politics and Hizbullah's grim language

The rhetoric of Hizbullah representatives lately has been so extreme, so contrary to the conventions of courteous political exchange in even semi-democratic Lebanon, that we have to wonder how long the country can survive without a showdown to settle its contradictions.

Whether it is Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, describing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as an “Israeli project,” before demanding that the Lebanese government accept this line of argument and end all collaboration with the institution; whether it is Nawaf al-Musawi, the head of Hizbullah’s international relations department, saying that the tribunal represents a new May 17 accord for the party; whether it is the same Musawi warning that “the period that will follow the [tribunal] indictment will not be the same as the one before, and any group in Lebanon that might endorse this indictment will be treated as one of the tools of the US-Israeli invasion, and will suffer the same fate as the invader”; whether it is other Hizbullah parliamentarians directing the accusation of collaboration with Israel against their colleagues supporting the tribunal (most recently Ali Ammar in a parliamentary commission session this week); whether it is Sheikh Mohammad Yazbek declaring that Hizbullah will not “accept accusations against any [party] member [which would represent] a violation of Lebanese dignity and the implementation of a conspiracy hatched by others”; whether it is any of these statements, or all of them, the meaning is the same: Hizbullah does not acknowledge the Lebanese state as sovereign.

That’s no surprise, you might say. Hizbullah has its own army and intelligence service, while its self-definition as a “resistance” liberates it from the usual constraints on Lebanese citizens. However, the tribunal forced Hizbullah out of the closet. Where the party once defended its actions within the framework of the state (even as it undermined the state), all pretenses ended during the struggle between the March 14 coalition and the opposition between 2005 and 2009. The armed takeover of Beirut in May 2008 confirmed that Hizbullah would fire on its fellow citizens and regarded state authority and the rule of law as thin veneers to be swept away when necessary.

That same logic persists with the tribunal. The Lebanese tend to forget that the creation of the tribunal was initially devised as a measure to bolster Lebanon’s judiciary, by ending impunity for political murder. The tribunal, like the investigation preceding it, along with Resolution 1559, were part and parcel of a broader effort to allow the Lebanese state to manage its affairs independently of Syrian hegemony and Hizbullah’s guns.

That is why Syria responded so violently to Resolution 1559, and why Hizbullah backed Damascus up as the Syrian order began collapsing after the Hariri killing. Time and again the Syrian regime has made clear to its Lebanese partners and its international interlocutors, including the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that it rejects the special tribunal. Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, echoed that thought once more in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, saying Damascus would oppose indictments from the tribunal, whose work he described as “politicized.”

More worrisome is that Hizbullah’s rhetoric is being internalized by many in the Shiite community. It’s one thing to criticize and disparage the state, long a favorite pastime of the Lebanese, but it’s another thing entirely to relentlessly strike against the very props of that state – whether the supremacy of its representative government, the sanctity of the judiciary and of other national institutions, regardless of which party controls them, or the right of all individuals or groups to express themselves freely, pluralistically, without being accused of treason.

Hizbullah has made a conscious effort in the past two decades to alienate Shiites from the state, even as it has integrated its coreligionists into state bodies, both for reasons of patronage and to better ward off efforts by governments to challenge the party’s freedom of action. This alienation, a tactic copied by Michel Aoun with his own followers, serves a double purpose: to compel Shiites (or in Aoun’s case, loyal Christians) to consider only their leaders the source of ultimate legitimacy in society; and more recently to facilitate a situation where their full takeover of the state, whose current leaders are deemed illegitimate, would be welcomed as a purgative.

That is why Hizbullah, no less than Aoun, has been at ease with the principle of overturning the system at will. However, that kind of reasoning is inherently undemocratic, when not actually permeated with a sharp lining of demagoguery, spite, violence, and a pronounced antipathy toward peaceful debate reminiscent of countless fascist movements. These characteristics are not remotely reconcilable with the way Lebanon has historically functioned. Either Hizbullah must win out or the state will, even if the battle is a long one.

In a 1996 interview, Nasrallah remarked that the resistance could not depend on state authority, because in such a case “there would be no resistance on the ground at all … [U]nder such conditions resistance would simple be pro forma – a resistance in name only, staged for publicity purposes, rather than genuine, serious and effective.”

Here was a transparent statement from Nasrallah as to why the resistance must never and would never embrace the supremacy of the state. More chilling was his attitude toward the state itself, for which he reserved withering contempt as an entity inherently unserious, surely handicapped by its debilitating complexities, by the presence of divergences among its forces and the privilege to dissent. Nasrallah had spoken the words of enforced uniformity, the premise of his anti-state.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lost in transmission

From a legal and interpretative standpoint, the official position of Hezbollah on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has provoked much confusion, not to say disturbing inconsistencies, even for the party faithful. Here are some of the reasons why.

Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, set the tone in July when he described the STL as “an Israeli project.” In subsequent speeches he affirmed that the tribunal was preparing indictments that would, he understood, target Hezbollah personnel for having allegedly participated in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. These indictments were an effort to undermine the Resistance, Nasrallah continued, and the plot was being pushed forward by what he called “false witnesses.” Hezbollah, which does not recognize the legitimacy of the Special Tribunal, has pressed for a Lebanese investigation of such witnesses.

Hardening the party’s position even further, this week one of its parliamentarians, Nawwaf al-Moussawi, declared that any indictment would represent “a new May 17,” referring to the accord signed by Lebanon and Israel in 1983.

The matter of false witnesses is at the heart of Hezbollah’s scattershot attack against the STL. Technically, those who misled international investigators are not “false witnesses” at all, since they did not lie under oath before a court of law. If some witnesses lied, as is entirely possible, then they are guilty of having obstructed the investigation. Therefore, those worried about the impact of such testimony, namely Hezbollah, have an interest in signaling to tribunal investigators that the information in their possession is faulty.

However, that is not what Hezbollah has done. Instead, the party has denounced the Special Tribunal itself. To fudge over this discrepancy, the party has gone along with its ally, Jamil as-Sayyed, in contending that the doctoring of testimony was overseen by the first United Nations investigator, Detlev Mehlis, and his assistant, Gerhard Lehmann. Hezbollah’s most sympathetic press outlet, Al-Akhbar, has consistently echoed this line. In other words, both men allowed or urged witnesses to lie in order to carry their commission’s conclusions in a specific direction and condemn otherwise innocent parties.

This reasoning poses three problems. First, Mehlis and Lehmann must have had remarkable powers of persuasion to convince perhaps hundreds of witnesses, including a large number of experienced Lebanese politicians, to sign on to statements that would ultimately cast the blame on certain parties while avoiding naming others.

Second, the UN investigation involved dozens of investigators and analysts from different countries, loaned by governments each with their own national interests, agendas and so forth. While some of these governments might have welcomed biased findings in the investigation, there were doubtless just as many, if not more, who, for reasons pertaining to their political aims in the Middle East, would have opposed efforts by Mehlis to bend his evidence to charge those not guilty. These governments were also in regular contact with their investigators in the UN commission and knew well what was going on. It is unlikely – in fact downright impossible – for everyone to have colluded to point the finger in one direction for Hariri’s killing.

And third, let’s stop speaking in abstract terms: Mehlis, like his predecessor Peter Fitzgerald, explicitly took his investigation in a Syrian direction. Yet Hezbollah is now accusing Bellemare of using the false testimony garnered by Mehlis to indict not Syria, but Hezbollah. There is a profound disconnect here. If Mehlis fabricated his reports, and by some superhuman effort managed to induce his many witnesses to sign statements against Syria, how is it that Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal, apparently will not be accusing Syrians in his first round of indictments?

In his desire to focus on “false witnesses,” Nasrallah is assuming that Bellemare will be relying heavily on witness testimony to build up his case. Well not quite; there is the alleged Israeli spy Charbel Azzi, who might have manipulated telephone information at the Alfa company to hide Israeli involvement in the Hariri crime and blame Hezbollah instead. But in that event, who is behind this vast manipulation? Is it Bellemare working in cahoots with Azzi and Israel? Is it Mehlis working in cahoots with the false witnesses? And if so, why is it that Bellemare and Mehlis went in different investigative directions?

There are other steps Hezbollah has taken that also remain baffling. Why did the party hand the material it regarded as proof of Israeli responsibility in the Hariri assassination to Said Mirza, the public prosecutor? Hezbollah never had any intention of providing the material to the Special Tribunal directly, but it has also virtually endorsed Jamil as-Sayyed’s view that Mirza facilitated the accumulation of false testimony. Yet in providing its evidence to the public prosecutor, it recognized, at least implicitly, that he was the legal Lebanese reference point on the Special Tribunal, other than the justice minister. If so, how does this square with Sayyed’s view that Mirza is largely an illegitimate interlocutor on the tribunal?

These are all questions that need to be clarified by Hezbollah before the party can make a compelling case against Bellemare, Mehlis, the UN investigation and now the Special Tribunal. Perhaps that’s one reason why Syria has urged Hezbollah not to pursue the “false witnesses” argument. In terms of logic, it can lead to a brick wall.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What price for Bashar Assad's backing?

Walid Jumblatt has been apocalyptic in predicting what lies ahead for Lebanon. The Druze leader may be overstating things, but is legitimately worried about a Sunni-Shiite conflict over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. He is also apparently defining a new role for himself: that of midwife to a Syrian military return to Lebanon.

“We’re heading toward civil war if things remain as they are,” Jumblatt told me this week.

“What about the Syrians?” I asked.

“We should stop this fixation on the Syrians. They can’t do anything if the situation begins deteriorating; they don’t have troops on the ground,” he replied.

“But they would like to,” I said.

“And why not, I would support this,” Jumblatt interjected; “This is not a nation but a collection of tribes. You can quote me.”

When Jumblatt makes such statements, there is usually something behind it. After the Burj Abi Haidar clashes, Wi’am Wahhab, a faithful conveyor of the Syrian mindset, warned that Damascus would intervene using all possible means to prevent a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon. At the time Jumblatt and the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, also played up the sectarian nature of the fighting, implying that foreign, read Syrian, intercession might one day be required.

That the Syrians never abandoned the idea of returning to Lebanon militarily after 2005 is and always was evident. But it’s not easy, because those with the most to lose from Syria’s comeback are Iran and Hizbullah. Neither Damascus nor Tehran will enter into open conflict over Lebanon, since their interests coincide on many fronts. However, after five years during which Hizbullah took hold of the commanding heights of the Lebanese state, transforming it into an Iranian card in the Levant, the party has no desire, and Iran no intention, of reverting to the time when Hizbullah hewed to Syrian priorities.

Where is Syria today? The elusiveness of an answer has confused both Hizbullah and Saad Hariri, with his Saudi sponsors. It appears the Saudis are angry with Syria’s President Bashar Assad for allowing Hizbullah, through General Jamil al-Sayyed, and Michel Aoun to attack the prime minister as they have. More important, the Saudis are unhappy that their agreement with Syria over Iraq is unraveling, now that Assad appears to have embraced the Iranian and American view that Nouri al-Maliki must be reappointed prime minister in Baghdad. The Saudis had hoped that, with Syrian backing, they could derail that project, but Assad has little leverage in Iraq, other than violence, to oppose a tacit American-Iranian understanding.

That is why Hariri arrived from Saudi Arabia this week raising the ante, declaring that he would continue to support the special tribunal. A report on MTV Tuesday suggested that a Saudi envoy (unnamed, but presumably King Abdullah’s son Abdel-Aziz) visited Damascus and told the Syrians that they were not respecting the agreement reached in Beirut last month between Assad and King Abdullah. The agreement held that all disputes would be settled within the national unity government, and that stability in Lebanon would prevail.

If the report is correct, the envoy was engaged in a preemptive move, because until now Syria has held up its end of the bargain. While the ramifications of the Burj Abi Haidar incident are still obscure, the bottom line of that confrontation was that in the future if Hizbullah decides on a military operation in western Beirut to intimidate Hariri, it might find itself fighting pro-Syrian Sunni armed groups.

As for bringing down the government, the recent arrest by the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch of Fayez Karam, an adviser to Michel Aoun, for allegedly being an Israeli spy, is a convenient deterrent to Aoun. The general may discover that if he were to follow Hizbullah out of the government, others in his entourage might suddenly be accused of Israeli ties. And as Aoun knows, the Information Branch has been coordinating with the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh. The Karam arrest may well have been concocted in Beirut and Damascus.

What worries the Saudis is that Assad will give up on the Beirut agreement once he faces Hizbullah and Iranian determination to undermine the Hariri tribunal. When the Hizbullah parliamentarian Nawaf al-Musawi describes an indictment against Hizbullah as “a new May 17 agreement,” in reference to the Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal agreement of 1983; when the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, plans to visit Beirut in mid-October largely to reassert his stake in Lebanon’s future; when those things occur, it is understandable that the Saudis doubt Syrian resolve, above and beyond their natural fear of Syrian duplicity.

Hizbullah is putting out word that it may soon strike a debilitating blow against the tribunal. Perhaps, but what would the consequences be? Assad spent years patiently bringing Saad Hariri and the Sunnis back to Syria’s door. He managed to get Hariri to declare Syria innocent of Rafik Hariri’s murder. Assad also reintegrated Syria into the Arab fold through his reconciliation with the Saudis, while avoiding a divorce with Iran. It’s doubtful that Syria would surrender these gains by allowing Hizbullah to devastate the Sunnis, now once again allies of Damascus, unless of course Assad can take advantage of the ensuing sectarian conflagration to bring Syrian soldiers back to Lebanon.

That’s a long shot. Hariri is playing for time, awaiting the tribunal’s indictment, after which he possibly imagines that he can bargain with Hizbullah over the party’s weapons. That is terribly optimistic, especially as Syria will have demands of its own. But Syria’s ambiguity on the tribunal and on stability in Lebanon will persist – its playing both sides of the Lebanese coin. This worries everyone, and Assad is delighted. Worrying everyone makes him more valuable, and it means he can raise his price on all comers, Iranian and Saudi.

The US looks the other way as Lebanon slides towards chaos

So it was no surprise that many missed the visit to Beirut of the American special envoy for Middle East peace negotiations, George Mitchell. This was a fitting sign of Washington’s limitations in Lebanon.

The Obama administration has just appointed a new ambassador, Maura Connelly, one well experienced in regional affairs. Ms Connelly replaces a colleague never considered a powerhouse on the Lebanese scene, with some seeing in her a return to more assertive diplomacy. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the new ambassador served as a deputy to Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, himself the most assertive of ambassadors in Beirut when he served there around the time of the Hariri killing and afterward.

However, it will take more than a strong personality to reverse American difficulties in Lebanon. The country is hardly an administration priority, even less so when Barack Obama’s major preoccupations are domestic. Ms Connelly will struggle to place Lebanon higher up in Washington’s attentions. The task was made no easier when the Lebanese told Mr Mitchell that they would not now participate in direct peace talks with Israel.

Lebanon may not be important to Mr Obama, but to quote the title of a recent book on the country by journalist David Hirst, one should beware of small states (a phrase borrowed from Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist). Lebanon is the most likely venue for an Arab-Israeli war; it is a frontline in the conflict between the Arab world and Iran; the Lebanese state, over which Hizbollah has widespread control, is close to becoming the mere husk of a state, its sovereignty and independence fictitious; and, most worryingly, relations between Sunnis and Shiites in the country are worse than ever before, with chilling ramifications for the Middle East if they turn violent.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Our broken general

Michel Aoun is not wrong to complain that the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces has taken on duties and powers that transgress the institution’s original mandate. But the general is also irony-free, undermining his own case.

Since his return from exile five years ago, Aoun’s primary preoccupation has been to encrust himself in the political class he once pretended to despise. The general has played the inside-outside game well enough, portraying himself to his devotees as a principled dissenter while fighting with his political rivals over control of instruments of patronage and power. His latest tirade against the Information Branch, but also, unexplainably, President Michel Sleiman, was a fine example of his contradictions.

If Aoun can make a good case that intelligence institutions are mushrooming in Lebanon, and that this goes against the spirit of the constitution, he really needs to take it a bit further. Will we hear Aoun soon complaining, for example, that the General Security Directorate has also morphed into an intelligence body far beyond its original, largely administrative, terms of reference, including the signing of our passports? Probably not, because the general’s Hezbollah allies are in control there, and the metastasis of General Security took place under another de facto ally of Aoun’s, General Jamil as-Sayyed.

As Aoun defends the constitution, has he bothered to read the very first sentence in its Article 1, namely that “Lebanon is an independent, indivisible, and sovereign state.” And might he wish to apply that to Hezbollah, which has undermined all three propositions? Lebanon is not independent, if, for example, the party carries the country into a war against Israel on behalf of Iran, as it may well do. And Lebanon is certainly not indivisible for as long as there continue to be parts of its territory off limits to the state, where Hezbollah gunmen can detain people for questioning and fire on Lebanese army helicopters.

And Lebanon is positively not sovereign when Hezbollah is able to maintain an armed force more powerful than the Lebanese army, and a security and intelligence apparatus parallel to Lebanon’s official security and intelligence agencies. If Aoun is to convince anybody of the justice of his perorations on the Information Branch, he must also mention these other, even more alarming, realities.

But then Aoun’s savaging of everyone, all the way up to the top of the political ladder, must mean something else. How na├»ve you are, some might direct my way: Aoun’s anger is all about Fayez Karam, the general’s aide arrested several weeks ago by the Information Branch for allegedly being an Israeli spy. Perhaps, although we here were the first to suggest that Karam’s arrest might be part of a larger scheme to break Aoun away from Hezbollah and bring him more fully into Syria’s fold, while also representing a knife over the general’s head to prevent him from exiting the Hariri government.

By and large Aoun and his parliamentarians have ended up confirming that or a similar interpretation. Salim Salhab, a pro-Aoun deputy from the Metn, repeated that the Karam arrest was an effort to split the Aounists and Hezbollah. After initially distancing himself from Karam, on the grounds that the spying accusations might be true, Aoun changed track and began attacking the Information Branch and the judiciary. The general’s daughters are said to be visiting Karam’s wife regularly, while Karam himself is being well treated. There is much ambiguity surrounding his guilt, and Aoun’s tirade underlines that what is at stake is more political than legal.

If so, we shouldn’t take too seriously Aoun’s protests against the Information Branch on ethical or constitutional grounds. The fuss is a consequence of Aoun’s personal calculations, his efforts to maneuver between Hezbollah, Syria and his political foes, all the while ensuring that he can one day leave behind what passes for a political dynasty, one ruled over by his sons in law and daughters.

It’s a shame, because like a broken clock that tells good time twice a day, Aoun can sometimes be correct. The unjustified and uncontrolled proliferation or expansion of intelligence and security agencies in Lebanon is worrisome. Pluralism can be valuable, but the propagation of mini-states and partisan state institutions is not. This means fragmentation, and Lebanon’s elusive democracy is the worse for it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bashir, or the nearness of the precipice

Once a year, on September 14, members of the Gemayel family and supporters gather in Achrafieh to commemorate the assassination in 1982 of President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Somehow, that event is soaked with pathos, having become a confirmation of Maronite decline through the inevitable contrasts it provides between Bashir’s soaring ambitions and the community’s dismal reality today.

But even for those not taken up by the cult of Bashir, who do not believe the Gemayels (or anyone else) are authorized to forever grace us with their presence in inherited political office, the yearly ceremony yet retains bracing defiance. This year it was Nadim Gemayel accusing the Syrian regime of having murdered virtually all Lebanese politicians from Kamal Jumblatt on, including Bashir, down to Rafik Hariri and subsequent victims from the March 14 coalition.

After all this time since his killing, Bashir’s legacy has gone through multiple transformations, along with the customary deletions and elisions, thanks to a tendency to rewrite his story as a hagiography. That the keepers of the flame should be, primarily, Bashir’s wife and children, and to a much lesser extent a brother who happened to be a bitter political rival, hardly renders the narrative more precise.

Here’s one interpretation, as contestable as any other. Bashir Gemayel was many things, above all a populist Maronite recalcitrant, who combined impatience with Lebanon’s traditional political rules, a sensitivity to growing Maronite weakness, and a confident perception that this could be reversed through his conquest of a Christian society that would curb dissent, which Bashir saw as the main source of communal divisions. The son of a political family, he sought to smash its hierarchy by surpassing his father and brother, both initially more influential than he. The product of a pluralistic order, he defended that order against armed Palestinian groups in the 1970s, before his self-righteousness pushed him to seek to replace it with a form of enforced uniformity under his own self-assured leadership.

There was much hubris in Bashir, best embodied in his statement at the start of his election campaign that the National Pact of 1943 was no longer valid. What he couldn’t stomach in Lebanon’s founding social contract was the weighty compromises, the corruption and sluggishness of a system favoring perennial stalemate, even as Lebanon, Christians in particular, was threatened on all sides. Not surprisingly, Bashir described his project of change as revolutionary.

Here is what he told his closest partisans shortly before his assassination: “We can no longer govern with the men who were in power before 1975, or with the 1943 mentality … A strong state for me is a state that is capable of protecting the Christian identity and guaranteeing the equality of all Lebanese. I am the president of the state and the leader of the nation. That is the real revolution. Without this revolution the war in Lebanon will have been in vain.”

But there was an uneasy tension in Bashir’s wanting to protect Christian identity while also guaranteeing the equality of all Lebanese. What would happen if those two intentions entered into conflict with one another? Which would Bashir favor? Nor was it ever realistic that Muslims would rally to his undebated vision. And since when was Lebanon a place of revolution? If anything, before 1982 and long afterward, the country has suffered at the hands of those seeking to destroy the foundations of the political system while offering no substitute around which a national consensus might coalesce.

Perhaps that is why Bashir continues to be associated in my mind with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Both are men who have regarded themselves as above the system, also as superior to the system, who have sought to reshape Lebanon to better conform with the impositions of their egos. Bashir, like Nasrallah later on, anointed himself the final interpreter of Lebanon’s truths, a stern judge of the legitimacy of its political regulations and traditions. And both men have done more to discredit gradual political reform, while visiting violence on Lebanon, than most other major political figures.

But there is a difference between the two. Nasrallah’s ultimate reference point remains Iran and the organic relationship his party entertains with its regime and supreme religious authority. Bashir’s extensions into the region offered him no strategic depth or political succor. If anything, his alliance with Israel, even if he intended to abandon it once he had installed himself in the presidential palace, was a stain he would not have easily rinsed away both in Lebanon and the Arab world. Just as Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud never managed to win significant standing and respect for having been brought into power effectively on a Syrian tank, so too would Bashir have remained a pariah for taking over the presidency on an Israeli one.

The irony is that Bashir played an instrumental role in precipitating the Israeli invasion of 1982, which represented a seminal moment for Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shiites in general, and Hassan Nasrallah in particular. Here was Bashir Gemayel convinced that he had achieved his historical purpose of being the Christians’ redeemer, unaware that his success and death were only a bridge toward Shiite ascendancy.

But all this tells us is that Lebanon has a propensity to grind down those who think they are better than it. Nasrallah would do well to learn from his Maronite predecessor. As Bashir’s followers discovered to their dismay, the point of highest achievement can lie next to a precipice.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's Security Council time for Bellemare

We can say of Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, that he is like the proverbial ostrich. His head is stuck firmly in the sand while every day now the rest of his feathered body is being carved up for the feast.

It was, plainly, Saudi resolve that forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to declare to the Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat this week that the accusations directed against Syria for the murder of his father, Rafik Hariri, were “political.” More significantly, Hariri affirmed that so-called “false witnesses” were responsible for tensions between Beirut and Damascus. The prime minister knows who killed his father, but that’s of no concern to his political sponsors, who have been squeezing Hariri every which way recently to ease a Syrian return to Lebanon, which Riyadh imagines will help contain Hizbullah.

The phrasing of Hariri’s statement was revealing. After making his remarks about the politicized accusations against Syria, the premier added that the tribunal was continuing its work, lending it some legitimacy. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to dissatisfy Hizbullah. What Hariri did, or tried to do, was to implicitly repeat the Der Spiegel line from last year (which more than ever appears to have been the consequence of Syrian manipulation), namely that Damascus is innocent but that the tribunal is ongoing, therefore its conclusions, even if Hizbullah is named, are worth considering.

Hariri’s calculation was probably to retain some semblance of leverage over Hizbullah. The Syrians, playing both sides of the aisle in order to advance their own interests in Lebanon, have been encouraging their Lebanese megaphones to discredit the tribunal and call for its dissolution, even as they have avoided putting direct pressure on Hariri to end cooperation with the institution. The Syrians are still thinking of using an indictment in ways that expand their power, but they, like Hizbullah, ultimately want the tribunal to be killed from the Lebanese side, so that it won’t harm them.

It is difficult to see how Hariri can come out of this convoluted maneuvering with anything in hand. His comments this week, particularly on the “false witnesses,” were early steps on a slippery slope that can only wreck the tribunal’s effectiveness. The prime minister may want to retain leverage, but his chances of succeeding are diminishing by the day, and the Syrians win either way. What weakens Hariri helps them; what weakens Hizbullah helps them; and a dispute between Hariri and Hizbullah helps them, too. Indeed, today they find themselves indirectly, and agreeably, mediating between the prime minister and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah through Walid Jumblatt, whose reference point in Damascus is Mohammad Nassif, one of the late President Hafez Assad’s closest collaborators.

This brings us back to Daniel Bellemare. With admirable blitheness, the prosecutor continues to insist that he will not allow politics to enter his investigation. However, he is also an official in a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal, and to ignore the fact that Lebanese politics are steadily overwhelming his work, as they most definitively are, is a sign of his inexperience. Lebanese state institutions form the implementation arm of the tribunal; Lebanese judges sit on the panel; Bellemare’s deputy, Joyce Tabet, is a Lebanese magistrate. Of course the Canadian prosecutor can sit in a remote office and craft an indictment, as he should, but if the Lebanese state is not on board, his work could well end up being an empty intellectual exercise.

What can Bellemare do? That the Lebanese prime minister should cast doubt on his investigation by challenging the testimony of “false witnesses” is not something to be silently sucked up. Prosecutors, quite reasonably, avoid getting ensnared in the politics of their cases, but that doesn’t mean they don’t play a form of politics to build up indictments, protect their investigation, and keep the guilty on the defensive. A successful prosecutor in political crimes is one who can shape the legal environment in his or her favor. This requires a competent communications strategy, the astute handling of information, and a willingness to confront those trying to derail the investigation.

Don’t expect much. Bellemare’s communication skills have been appalling. His understanding of Lebanon and its complexities has been no less unimpressive. Three months after the departure of his spokeswoman, Radhia Achouri, Bellemare only yesterday named Henrietta Aswad as her replacement. In the interim, he ceded that role to Fatima Issawi, the tribunal spokeswoman, who often represented different institutional interests than the prosecutor’s.

Bellemare’s options in addressing Hariri’s comments are limited, but that doesn’t mean he can afford to do nothing. When a prime minister interferes in your inquiry, it’s really time to threaten to resign, and say so publicly. Of course, there is nothing that Hizbullah would like more, and it would be a mistake for the prosecutor to actually carry through on the threat, at least initially. But what Bellemare must do is cause a stink, then compel the Security Council to take a position and perhaps issue a resolution affirming confidence in his investigation.

At this stage, Bellemare is out of his league. His only hope for salvation is to return to the international body that created the special tribunal in the first place, and use that as a stick to warn the Lebanese of the consequences of failing to cooperate with his efforts. He should also fly to Beirut and verify on the ground, and publicly, where his Lebanese interlocutors stand, above all the president, the speaker and the prime minister. And Bellemare should use his new spokeswoman far more proactively than he did her predecessor.

The prosecutor can no longer pretend that there is an isolated, unadulterated judicial process on the one side and politics on the other. The two are bleeding into each other, and the politics are decisively contaminating Bellemare’s investigation. The trial process will be doomed unless the prosecutor acts. And the only card he really holds is to make the Security Council assume its responsibilities.

Witnesses for the dissolution

Officials close to Syria are saying the leadership in Damascus has urged Hezbollah not to pursue the matter of alleged “false witnesses” who gave testimony to international investigators looking into the killing of Rafik al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

Is that true? The information is difficult to confirm, but there may be a good motive for Syrian reluctance. The prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, may conceivably have in his files affidavits indicating that Syria itself encouraged witnesses to give false testimony to the United Nations inquiry. If so, Hezbollah may effectively be pushing Bellemare to reveal information that Damascus prefers to keep under wraps, especially if the prosecutor does not accuse any Syrians in his first round of indictments.

What is the issue of “false witnesses” about? For starters, the concept itself is a misnomer. If individuals lied to international investigators, and in doing so falsely accused Hezbollah or Syria of Hariri’s murder, then they are guilty not of bearing false witness, which presumably is only something that can be done before a court of law, but of hindering the investigation. In other words, their tarnished testimony should be of less concern to Hezbollah or Syria than to Bellemare and the Lebanese judiciary, which is represented in the prosecution and is entitled to legally punish those obstructing justice.

And does Hezbollah want Syria to return one purported “false witness,” Hussam Hussam, to Lebanon, or perhaps The Hague, so that he can be questioned once more by Bellemare? Then again, to the best of my knowledge Hussam never officially withdrew his testimony, despite his press conference in Damascus in 2005, during which he said that he had been manipulated by the Hariri camp. And how did Hussam Hussam manage to get to Syria in the first place, when he was under scrutiny by Lebanon’s security services?

Then there are the others who might be accused of being “false witnesses,” those who are today Syrian allies. Take Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader might retract what he told the first United Nations commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, but he hasn’t done so yet. And what of those like Saad Hariri or his entourage who offered testimony that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, threatened Rafik al-Hariri in August 2004? What will they do? That’s not to mention the late prime minister’s widow, Nazeq, who has no intention of allowing the tribunal to turn into a whitewash – or more likely a washout.

The discussion over false witnesses can cut in many directions, not all of them to Syria’s advantage. But then why, in his interview this week with As-Sharq al-Awsat, did Prime Minister Saad Hariri declare that false witnesses had misled the investigation? It is unclear, but Hariri may not have had much of a choice. He couldn’t very well blame himself, or his political allies, for having told Mehlis the truth, so he had to blame false witnesses, in the hope that none would ever be brought before the Special Tribunal.

Hezbollah is unconcerned with these nuances. The party sees two advantages in forging ahead in its campaign against false witnesses: first, it is a useful tool to intimidate those individuals who spoke to international investigators, and who might now, quite reasonably, fear being brought before the tribunal as witnesses. And second, the false witness angle means Hezbollah can keep a knife to the neck of Lebanese politicians who gave testimony to UN investigators, regardless of whether, or perhaps because, they are close to Syria.

However, Hezbollah does run a risk with the false witness argument. The most obvious is that it does not know what Bellemare has in hand. Those who have been accused of lying to UN investigators have tended to be involved in what we might call the Syrian side of the case. But Hezbollah has implied that Bellemare will base his upcoming accusations against the party on false testimony as well. If the prosecutor does not produce such witnesses when he issues his indictment, then Hezbollah’s credibility could be damaged.

On the other hand, if Bellemare offers little witness testimony against Hezbollah, this could mean that his case is dependent on some solid evidence and a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence. It is very difficult to successfully prosecute a complex political crime like the Hariri assassination by relying heavily on circumstantial evidence. A good defense team could open up holes left, right and center.

One thing is certain. By shifting discussion of the tribunal from an accusation against Hezbollah to one directed against supposed false witnesses, Hezbollah has succeeded in confusing everyone. Few are the Lebanese who will look at Bellemare’s indictment objectively when it comes out. The last thing a tribunal can afford to lose is the advantage of being recognized as a legitimate dispenser of justice. But Bellemare has lost the initiative and must correct this rapidly.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rare Bellemare, an assessment

The interview conducted this week by NOW Lebanon with the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, offered up interesting tidbits. Nothing in it was groundbreaking, but the give and take did help clarify Bellemare’s mindset, at a time when the prosecutor has generally been silent about his investigation.

Much attention was focused on two things Bellemare said. He observed that an indictment had yet to be drafted, but also that his team had made “huge progress.” The prosecutor said he was working on “the evidentiary process” to ensure his evidence was admissible in court. “If I file an indictment and there is no evidence, the whole structure collapses, and we will [find] ourselves in trouble,” he added.

Bellemare’s remarks suggested that he is concentrating specifically on the indictment, rather than on intermediate measures, for example a request that certain suspects be arrested in preparation for an indictment. It is quite possible that the prosecutor will yet engage in such a step, but, if so, nothing in the interview indicated this.

More interesting were Bellemare’s views of the nature of the evidence. To a question as to whether telephone data might represent circumstantial evidence, he replied: “Well, I would call circumstantial evidence conclusive. I think there has been some confusion on what circumstantial evidence means. I have read in a Lebanese newspaper that circumstantial evidence was no good. In the system I come from, circumstantial evidence is a number of little facts that, when you look at them on their own, they might mean nothing. But when you put them together, then the whole picture becomes irrefutable.”

Reading between the lines, Bellemare’s comments seemed to lend credence to those who believe that he will base his case substantially on circumstantial evidence. In fact, the first United Nations commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, and before him the Irish deputy police chief, Peter Fitzgerald, did much the same thing in their reports. Bellemare is right: Circumstantial evidence can sometimes point irrefutably in one direction, particularly in a case like the killing of Rafik Hariri, where there was one actor controlling the political and security environment in the run-up to the assassination.

But what Bellemare didn’t say is that circumstantial evidence is more difficult to uphold in court. The prosecutor may well have forensic evidence, telephone analyses and other examples of “solid” proof; but what he appears to have much less of is witness testimony from those involved in the crime from the angle Bellemare is evidently pursuing today, namely participation by Hezbollah. And without testimony, a good defense lawyer can open up breaches in an indictment, which is why Bellemare is taking so much time to make his case airtight.

Bellemare admitted to following how his investigation was playing out in the Lebanese media. However, he observed, “I am not influenced by what is said on TV. If I was to gauge my investigation along this, then I would be politicized. I have to go through the steps to make sure the result is a credible [step]. And that the people – the victims and their relatives – will have an outcome they are able to believe.”

That’s sensible, but as Bellemare knows, the Special Tribunal is a mixed Lebanese-international body, with the Lebanese providing the institution’s implementation arm. Even if the prosecutor pursues his investigation away from politics, as is his duty, he must also calculate how his every move affects, or is affected by, developments inside Lebanon. Lebanese politics may easily overcome Bellemare’s work, so that it becomes inevitable for the prosecutor to play some version of politics, principally through an effective communications strategy, even as he avoids getting entangled in side disputes with his detractors.

In other words, Bellemare is not functioning in a vacuum. It is part of any prosecutor’s role in a high-profile political case to be able to shape perceptions, to work the terrain in favor of his or her case, to defend his or her integrity and that of the investigating team, and to keep the guilty off balance. Bellemare has done poorly in virtually all of these categories, and he still does not have an official spokesperson more than three months after Radhia Achouri left her position. It speaks volumes that the NOW Lebanon interview was such a rarity.

The topic of funding did not come up, nor did Bellemare volunteer any information on it. That’s a pity, since it has become quite apparent lately that money may emerge as a chief concern if the prosecutor does not come up with an indictment this year. Nor did we discover what Bellemare hopes to learn from the controlled explosion that will be conducted this fall near the French city of Bordeaux, though it must have to do with bolstering his circumstantial evidence. The prosecutor also did not explain why Muhammad Zuheir al-Siddiq was no longer a suspect in the Hariri assassination. No one doubts Siddiq’s unreliability, but it appears that he provided, or was fed, information that he could not have made up.

If provided the opportunity, Bellemare might want to take back his unhappy comparison of the Hariri investigation with that of the Lockerbie bombing, which also “took years before the whole process was finished.” In light of the fiasco of the Lockerbie inquiry, the ongoing row in the United Kingdom over the release last year from prison of a Libyan intelligence agent accused of committing the crime, and a growing belief that the agent may have been made a scapegoat, Bellemare could have provided a more reassuring illustration.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Syria's allies take their allotted places

If there were doubts that the rivalry between Syria and Hizbullah has reached new levels of complication, then consider the recent statements by the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, and the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Berri and Jumblatt seemed to be reading from the same songbook when they declared recently (Jumblatt in his weekly Al-Anbaa editorial) that one had to distinguish between the work of the tribunal and any indictment it might issue. This was subtle, but not so subtle that the public failed to miss that both men were effectively rejecting the view expressed by Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, that the institution itself was an “Israeli project.”

In his speech on Tuesday commemorating the 32nd anniversary of Imam Musa al-Sadr’s disappearance, Berri avoided criticizing the tribunal, and took a number of political stances marking his distance from Hizbullah. He insisted that the “project of the state” was a Shiite interest, implicitly censuring Hizbullah’s efforts to undermine state authority; he affirmed that Lebanon “respected its engagements with regard to implementation of Resolution 1701” and emphasized the “close human relations between the inhabitants [of the south] and UNIFIL forces.” And he defended Taif as “our constitution,” repeating that its clauses on deconfessionalization awaited implementation.

It is ironic that Berri’s stalwart defense of the Lebanese state and its sovereignty should only serve to strengthen the hand of Syria in the struggle over Lebanon’s future, the same Syria that ravaged both the state and its sovereignty during its 29-year military presence.

In that light, it appears increasingly clear that the Burj Abi Haidar incident last week was less a Hizbullah signal directed at Damascus that it would not bend in the face of Syrian pressures, than a message from Syria to Hizbullah. As the fighting began, there was military mobilization in Sunni neighborhoods around Burj Abi Haidar, with Syria’s allies there bringing out their weapons. Hizbullah was reportedly bewildered by the sudden proliferation of armed groups lining up against the party, even as its units were being bussed into the area where the clashes were occurring. Hizbullah not only had to swallow the killing of two officials, it was unable, or not allowed, to enter the perimeter around the Ahbash mosque in Burj Abi Haidar.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad tends to work from the same template as his father when it comes to Lebanon. In 1985-86, Hafez Assad engineered a return of Syrian soldiers to western Beirut, from where they had been compelled to withdraw by the Israelis in 1982. Assad managed this by allowing pro-Syrian militias in that part of the city, principally Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and Berri’s Amal movement, to go at each other with vicious abandon. Western Beirut effectively reverted to a state of nature, until the Sunni elite asked Assad for help. He was glad to oblige, and in 1985 he deployed intelligence agents in the capital, and a year later his army returned.

It was lost on no one what Wi’am Wahhab announced after the Burj Abi Haidar incident. Wahhab’s sole reason for existing, evidently, is to issue statements clarifying the Syrian mindset, or at least that of the intelligence agencies, and he warned that Syria would intervene using all possible means to prevent a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon. Not surprisingly, Berri and Jumblatt simultaneously played up the sectarian nature of the Burj Abi Haidar incident, at a moment when Hizbullah was busily trying to portray it as a personal quarrel.

It would be too simplistic to suggest that the Syrians provoked the Hizbullah-Ahbash confrontation in order to bring their army back to Lebanon. Bashar Assad would like to do so, because only a military presence allows him to truly control the country and regain the Lebanese card regionally. However, such a process requires time, careful preparation regionally and internationally, and patience. For now the Syrians are focusing on gaining leverage against Hizbullah, which holds the political and military initiative in the country.

It appears that Saad Hariri, who hoped to use the outrage over Burj Abi Haidar to demilitarize the capital, was forced to backtrack by Syria. In a meeting with Assad earlier this week, the prime minister apparently heard from the Syrian president that it was important to maintain calm in Lebanon, but also to preserve the resistance. Consequently, the demilitarization proposal was placed on the backburner at a meeting on Tuesday of the Higher Defense Council. Instead, the council discussed reinforcing the Lebanese Army, whose performance last week was disparaged by neighborhood residents.

It is interesting that Hariri should have raised the issue of demilitarizing the capital. The prime minister is still awaiting a decision from the prosecutor of the special tribunal, in the hope that this will allow him to extract concessions from Hizbullah. So too are the Syrians. But it’s by no means certain that Hariri and Assad see eye to eye on what to demand. Demilitarization of the capital is Hariri’s indirect way of indicating that he will support Hizbullah as a resistance force in south Lebanon, but not the party’s takeover of the rest of the country. The Syrians probably agree with this, because ultimately their objective is to use Hizbullah in the south, too, while they themselves take over the rest of the country. However, by making Hariri play down his demilitarization demand, Assad was plainly suggesting that Syria alone is entitled to raise that matter.

The maneuvering continues between Syria and Hizbullah, with Iran watching from the wings. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is supposed to visit Beirut in the foreseeable future. Will that trip go ahead as planned? The answer will tell us a great deal about the depth of the dissonance between Damascus and Tehran over Lebanon.