x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

As the Saudis and Syrians try to keep a deal, Lebanon waits

The Saudis still feel that Syria will act as a counterweight to Iran and Hizbollah, if only out of self-interest. The Syrians, in turn, need Saudi consent, which delivers Mr Hariri into their camp, so as to regain the initiative in Beirut, particularly when it comes to Hizbollah.

Last Monday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary on the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The CBC gained highly sensitive documents, evidently from a source inside the United Nations team investigating the killing, pointing "overwhelmingly" to Hizbollah's participation. This came as the prosecutor of a special tribunal established to try suspects for the crime is expected to issue indictments soon.

An important subtext is what the revelations will mean for a parallel effort taking place between Syria and Saudi Arabia to reach a multifaceted agreement over Lebanon. The two nations have been working on an understanding for months, and last July a joint visit to Beirut by King Abdullah and the Syrian president Bashar Assad seemed to seal a deal. However, relations soon broke down in mutual recrimination.

The arrangement was roughly this: Saudi Arabia would facilitate a Syrian political return to Lebanon so that Damascus might better contain Hizbollah and therefore Iranian influence in the country. Consequently, Riyadh encouraged its main ally in Lebanon, the prime minister Saad Hariri, to re-align himself with the Syrians and declare them innocent of Rafiq Hariri's assassination. Syria, in turn, would support Saudi priorities in Iraq, above all efforts to block the reappointment as prime minister of Nouri al Maliki, whom the Saudis regard as pro-Iran, therefore a threat to the kingdom's future.

Almost immediately, the understanding hit turbulence. When both Iran and the United States supported Mr al Maliki, Syria, which is relatively weak in Iraq and therefore saw no reason to oppose both Tehran and Washington, went along. The Saudis were apparently unhappy, leading to heightened tension in Beirut between Mr Hariri and Mr Assad. The Lebanese prime minister, though he was compelled to imply that Syria had not killed his father, also declared his confidence in the special tribunal, which the Syrians want him to help scuttle by ending Lebanese cooperation.

Despite the problems, the Syrians and Saudis have an interest in helping each other out in Lebanon. The Saudis still feel that Syria will act as a counterweight to Iran and Hizbollah, if only out of self-interest. The Syrians, in turn, need Saudi consent, which delivers Mr Hariri into their camp, so as to regain the initiative in Beirut, particularly when it comes to Hizbollah.

It's a subtle game. Syria, Iran and Hizbollah are allies, but Mr Assad sees Lebanon as part of Syria's sphere of interest - a dominant status he lost to Iran in the years after the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005. The Syrian leader wants to play Mr Hariri and Hizbollah against one another to generate leverage that would allow Damascus, not Tehran, to maintain the upper hand over the Lebanese, albeit without jeopardising friendly Syrian-Iranian ties.

That is one reason why Mr Assad appears to have put a damper on Hizbollah's threats against Saad Hariri. The party has warned the prime minister of dire consequences if the Lebanese government doesn't break off relations with the special tribunal, which in all likelihood will accuse Hizbollah members of involvement in the Hariri assassination. That the party has not carried through on that threat may indicate Syrian uneasiness with the option. Nor have the Syrians until now pushed their political allies to withdraw ministers from Mr Hariri's government, which could bring it down.

Such behaviour has little to do with Syrian concern for Lebanese stability and wellbeing. Rather, Mr Assad only gains if he can continue to exploit Lebanese contradictions, requiring an equilibrium between the two major actors. For Syria to permit Saad Hariri's defeat and humiliation by Hizbollah, like ending the government, would only deny Syria that latitude while sacrificing the advantages of Saudi approval. At the same time, Syria wants to prevent Mr Hariri from neutralising Hizbollah through a tribunal accusation directed against the party. That is why Mr Assad hopes to use a revived understanding with Saudi Arabia to ensure that this will not happen.

Which leads us back to the CBC documentary. Though devastating in its content, the programme also raises a worrying question: Does the tribunal prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, have enough to win a case once he indicts? The reason need not be that Mr Bellemare's arguments are unconvincing; rather, in dealing with possible Hizbollah participation, it seems increasingly probable that, given the highly secretive nature of the party and the fact that the prosecution appears to have little witness testimony to corroborate its more solid findings, Mr Bellemare will have to base his accusations largely on circumstantial evidence. If that happens, it would almost certainly be to the advantage of the experienced defence team.

In an interview recently, Mr Bellemare defended circumstantial evidence, describing it as "more powerful than direct evidence". Any lawyer would tell you this was an odd thing to say. However, the phrase could have been an insight into where the prosecutor is going. More significantly, with respect to Saudi-Syrian negotiations, if the indictments are less than overwhelming and Mr Bellemare's legal contentions are wanting, it may become easier for the Saudis to convince Mr Hariri to distance his government from the tribunal. In other words the prime minister's ability to sustain Lebanese backing for the tribunal in the face of Syrian and Hizbollah resistance could very much come to depend on the strength of Mr Bellemare's case.

Many Lebanese faithfully repeat the mantra that the special tribunal is a reality, and that politics cannot undermine its work. How naïve. The tribunal is a mixed Lebanese-international body; whoever hinders Lebanese collaboration with the institution can necessarily shape the legal outcome. In the months, perhaps even the weeks, ahead, we may discover just how likely that reality has become.


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle