Lebanon is mired in a legal tussle over the investigation into the killing of its former prime minister. But the legal avenue may be less important today than the political manoeuvring attached to it.
Lebanese on the sidelines in this game of political football
Since July, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to try the assassins of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, has occupied all the political space in Beirut. That won't end soon, as the indictment process, once it begins, could take months, after which the tribunal will prepare for the trial - probably in autumn.
Until now, the prosecutor of the tribunal Daniel Bellemare has yet to present draft indictments to the pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen, who must confirm them in writing. Mr Bellemare is on vacation, and once he returns to The Hague, presumably he will need more time to finalise his case before sending draft indictments on. If, and here we are being optimistic, he does so by the middle of January, officials at the tribunal do not expect confirmations before March or April.
During this period, an important development is likely to take place. The bylaws of the tribunal allow Mr Fransen to accelerate the confirmation phase by transmitting legal queries he might have to the appeals chamber for discussion. The hearings are public, and even if none of the indicted will be named, observers will get a sense of the tenor of the case through the subjects debated. Lebanese actors, like states involved in Lebanon's affairs, will be watching carefully to stake out their political positions before formal indictments are released.
Throughout the latter part of this year, the special tribunal has become a crucial instrument in a wider power game for control of Lebanon. This has principally affected, and been shaped by, the intricate triangular relationship between Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The divided Lebanese, their allegiances offered to one or several of these states, have been turned into, or rather have turned themselves into, a political football, their destiny defined by outsiders.
During the past year, Saudi Arabia has sought to ease Syria's political return to Lebanon in the hope that this would contain Iran's growing influence in the country, and that of Hizbollah. Last summer, King Abdullah flew to Beirut with Syria's President Bashar Assad in a clear message along these lines to the Iranians. Hizbollah was visibly displeased, and soon thereafter the party appeared to play a key role in provoking a military confrontation between friendly units of the Lebanese army and Israeli soldiers along the southern border, as if to show that the party had the final say on Lebanon's stability.
Mr Assad was delighted to be brought into the mix by the Saudi king, as it allowed him to exploit Saudi-Iranian disagreements to Syria's advantage. The Syrian president will not break with Tehran or allow Hizbollah to be decisively weakened by the tribunal, but he wants to regain the paramount role that Syria had in Lebanon before 2005, when the Hariri killing forced its army out of the country. To do that, Mr Assad needs to take back political and security levers held by Iran, which, through Hizbollah, controls the ground in Lebanon.
In October, Iran organised its rejoinder to the Assad-Abdullah visit, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon. The symbolism of the trip left no doubt that Tehran regarded itself as the dominant actor on the Lebanese scene. This confidence was echoed by Iran's ambassador in Beirut the following month, in an interview with the daily Al Hayat. He was asked in a roundabout way whether Syria was not more entitled than Iran to have the greater say in Lebanon. The ambassador evaded the question, before pointing out that the relationship between Lebanon and Iran was an ancient one.
The tribunal is at the heart of this interplay of interests. Iran and Hizbollah want the Lebanese government to discredit the institution and terminate cooperation with it. Syria concurs, fearing the tribunal might undermine Hizbollah and perhaps point the finger at Syrian officials. But just as Mr Assad does not want to lose the Hizbollah card, he does not want Hizbollah to cripple Lebanon's prime minister, Saad Hariri, politically, since Damascus gains by playing the Lebanese parties off against one another. This has injected an unstable equilibrium in Beirut.
In late December, Syria and Saudi Arabia were still reportedly negotiating an accord to end the impasse over the tribunal, which has led to Hizbollah and its allies' refusal to attend Lebanese cabinet sessions unless ministers first agree to the transfer of the so-called "false witnesses" file to the Lebanese judiciary. Hizbollah has claimed that the special tribunal's evidence will be based on manipulated witness testimony, and has insisted that the matter be dealt with by Lebanon's Judicial Council. In fact, this is a red herring. There is no evidence that the tribunal will hear such testimony at all. Hizbollah's real objective is to create a parallel legal route inside Lebanon that would delegitimise the tribunal in The Hague.
Last week, an unidentified American official issued a warning in an Al Hayat interview that any Syrian-Saudi effort to impair Lebanese support for the tribunal would constitute "blackmail". This seemed directed primarily at Riyadh, which has considerable sway over Mr Hariri, who would be called upon to lead any assault on the tribunal approved by Syria and Saudi Arabia. The American statement could have a freezing effect on Syrian-Saudi discussions, whose results Iran must first endorse to become effective.
For now, Lebanon is caught up in a stalemate, despite claims that a breakthrough on the "false witnesses" front may come in the new year. The conflicting aims of the parties make broad agreement difficult, after which the dynamics of the tribunal may take over. There are no guarantees that Mr Bellemare will win his case or even prepare persuasive indictments. However, the legal avenue may be less important today than the political manoeuvring attached to it, with the Lebanese subordinate decision-makers in their own narrative.
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