Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Special tribunal tests Jumblatt’s opposing views

This week the Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt has been in the witness stand at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Mr Jumblatt, a political gymnast, aimed to achieve a number of things under questioning but his performance on his first two days also showed he preferred to sidestep others.

Early on, the Druze leader viewed the United Nations investigation of Hariri’s assassination in a Beirut bombing in February 2005 as a means of political leverage to reduce Syrian influence in Lebanon. However, in 2009, when Syria and Saudi Arabia effected a political rapprochement, president Bashar Al Assad’s regime set a condition. It wanted the Saudis to push their ally Saad Hariri, who had become Lebanese prime minister, into publicly denouncing the UN investigation.

The then-prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, was still preparing an indictment for the special tribunal in early 2011, when the Obama administration blocked these Syrian-Saudi efforts to discredit the court. In retaliation, Hizbollah and its allies pulled out of Saad Hariri’s government in January 2011, bringing it down.

Mr Jumblatt, who had reconciled with Syria months earlier, had initially urged Mr Hariri to accept the Syrian-Saudi deal. But 2011 was the year the uprising began in Syria and the Druze leader changed tack. He sided with the Syrian opposition and the tribunal became an instrument that could be used against Mr Al Assad.

One thing that did not change was Mr Jumblatt’s relationship with Hizbollah. When he improved ties with Syria in 2010, he also did so with Hizbollah. Despite his differences with the party over the Syrian conflict, the Druze leader has preserved that relationship. This is, in large part, to ensure domestic peace in Lebanon, particularly in areas he controls, which have a significant Shia population.

But the special tribunal has tested Mr Jumblatt’s conflicting attitudes. On the one hand, five Hizbollah members have been indicted by the court, which cannot please the Druze leader. On the other, Mr Jumblatt would like the tribunal to accuse the Syrian regime of Hariri’s murder.

Indeed, many of the Syrian security officials involved in, or who had information about, the Hariri assassination have died or been killed. Rustom Ghazaleh, who headed Syria’s intelligence network in Lebanon, was said to have died last week. Mr Jumblatt is not alone in linking all these deaths to the murder of Hariri. The argument is that the Syrian regime, already much weakened, could not afford to allow Syrian officers to be called by the court and possibly confirm its involvement.

Mr Jumblatt has been brought in by the prosecution to throw some light on the Syrian decision-making process and on relations between Hariri and the Syrian leadership. That is a subject the Druze leader has readily expanded upon.

But Mr Jumblatt will not target Lebanese parties that might have participated in the plot against Hariri. Just as he has steered clear of Hizbollah, he does not want to mention the Lebanese Army, whose intelligence services may have had prior knowledge of the assassination. In 2005, army intelligence was very close to Syria and Hizbollah, and it remains close to the party today.

At a time when the army maintains domestic peace in Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt will avoid tarnishing its reputation, particularly among Sunnis. Indeed, in his testimony on the first day the Druze leader was generally evasive about how the army had contributed to the intimidation of the former prime minister.

Many might look askance at Mr Jumblatt’s political aims in a legal process that should be above politics. But that would mean ignoring the fact that the Hariri assassination was a political crime, with implications for all aspects of Lebanese political life.

It will be up to the court to distinguish between the political agendas of the witnesses and their testimony. But the politics and the trial are irrevocably intertwined.

This has become even more relevant as the prosecution has taken the trial in the direction of Syrian involvement. Clearly, prosecutor Norman Farrell did not feel the original indictment, prepared by Mr Bellemare, was adequate, because it failed to determine a motive for the crime.

Mr Jumblatt’s testimony will be central to establishing a political context for Hariri’s killing. As every Lebanese knows, the former prime minister was preparing to head a coalition against pro-Syrian lists in the elections of summer 2005. This coalition would probably have won a majority, making the Lebanese parliament a focal point of opposition to Syria and to its man in Beirut, president Emile Lahoud. This would have threatened Syria’s presence in Lebanon.

That Mr Bellemare missed this in his indictment was a scandal, especially as there was ample information in witness statements taken down in 2005, which pointed in Syria’s direction. Mr Jumblatt’s role is to add meat to the prosecution’s bone. By shedding light on Syria, Mr Jumblatt hopes to reduce the focus on Hizbollah.

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