Lebanon expects to hear the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) deliver indictments in the investigation of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's 2005 murder imminently. Tension is rife as speculators ply their trade, and the country has split into predictable camps - those who believe the STL is an "Israeli Project" bent on destroying its biggest regional foe the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, and those who back the Tribunal, possibly also in hopes that it will neuter the ever-growing strength of Hezbollah and its regional allies.
Nobody seems to focus much attention on the actual murder victim and the 22 others who died alongside him in the massive truck bomb five years ago.
Perhaps that is because Lebanon has seen oh so many assassinations in its decades of civil war, invasions and occupations. So what is one more? And why should this one count more than another?
Quite right. The murder of this Lebanese man has come to symbolize so much more - it is often said that Hariri became "greater" in death than in life.
In identifying through anonymous sources in a May 2009 Der Spiegel article Hezbollah members as the main culprits in the assassination, the STL investigation has drawn the two "blocs" in the Middle East to the political - and potentially military - battleground.
Three years of investigations that appeared wholly focused on Syria were thrown by the wayside in early 2009 and the STL's laser beam shifted to Hezbollah. Opportunistically, many say, as Syria began to be courted at the highest levels of government by the West - away from its regional friends Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
In the interim, it appeared that those three years of investigations had been embarrassingly unproductive, as the Syria-focus seemed to be borne entirely from the false testimony of discredited witnesses. Not one. Not two. Over a dozen such "false witnesses."
"A Western/American/Israeli plot," yelled half of Lebanon's body politic, demanding a halt to the STL's machinations. Suddenly, the docile, plodding-along cooperation of Syrian and Lebanese authorities with the STL's investigations came to an abrupt halt as questions, suspicions and accusations rose hard and fast to the surface.
What about those false witnesses? What about the one who was spirited away to France under protection? What about the imprisoned Al Qaeda operatives who had already confessed to the crime?
The twists and turns in this plot are astounding. Some examples:
Just before the UN Security Council-backed investigation/Commission moved into its "Tribunal" phase in 2009, it ordered the release of four Lebanese generals who had been arrested shortly after Hariri's assassination under suspicion. They were never charged - or provided with evidence of their involvement. One of them, General Jamil el-Sayyed, the head of General Security and a Syrian ally, was allegedly contacted by senior Commission official Gerhard Lehman and asked to approach Syrian President Bashar al Assad with a deal:
"The offer," which Sayyed alleges Lehman made on behalf of Commission head Detlev Mehlis, specifically demanded that Assad pony up "a valuable Syrian 'victim' who will confess to the crime for personal or financial reasons - a victim who will conveniently be found dead later - and the Commission will strike a deal with the Syrian regime, similar to the one struck with Libya's Qaddafi over Lockerbie."
In a subsequent conversation, Sayyed was warned that non-compliance with this request would result in Sayyed becoming the "victim."
Sayyed had the foresight to tape some of his subsequent phone conversations with Lehman. He sent three of these to the investigative Commission. He never heard back on this issue, nor did the Commission ever request further information or original copies of the taping. But Lehman and his entire team were replaced shortly thereafter, supposedly because of the "false witnesses" fiasco. The players changed, but Sayyed still sat in prison.
Now out of prison and raging with the injustice of it all, Sayyed has launched a one-man legal tsunami against the STL, demanding his "file" so that he may bring to trial false witnesses and others who provided evidence against him in 2005. STL Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare has fought him all the way, although recent legal wrangling between both parties looks to ensure that Sayyed gets his file shortly.
This case has split the Lebanese Cabinet in the past few weeks. Sayyed wants to take the false witnesses, some Lebanese judges and a few former STL officials to court right now. The pro-STL side of the Cabinet wants to wait for the Tribunal's findings first. The other side says "why wait?"
Nasrallah's Re-direction of the Narrative
Since early this summer, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has been launching his own trial of the STL's credibility and competence. Through a series of well-timed press conferences that have stunned Lebanon, he has broadcast intercepted Israeli video footage following routes commonly taken by Hariri around Beirut and to his other homes in the period before the killing - and Israeli footage of the actual assassination route (Hariri was driving in a convoy of cars when the blast went off), taken from various angles.
Nasrallah has shown video footage of "known" Israeli spies confessing to actions that fingered Syria in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. And he provided the information that an Israeli AWACS drone was flying near the Beirut coastline for three hours before the Hariri assassination and an hour and a half after the explosion.
Nasrallah has methodically, carefully, almost hypnotically built a counter-case to the STL's suspected evidence that Hezbollah operatives used a network of mobile phones to plan and execute the assassination.
A Telecoms Trojan Horse
Since early 2009, over 100 alleged Israeli agents/collaborators have been arrested in Lebanon and the infiltration of some of these operatives into the country's telecommunications networks has been a source of serious concern. Israel concluded, after its failed 2006 Lebanon war to destroy Hezbollah, that a key failure of the Jewish state's war strategy was its inability to penetrate the resistance group's communications system.
In May 2008, when - for a lack of a better word - the pro-STL element of the Lebanese government ordered Hezbollah to dismantle its private communications network, the resistance group took over Beirut for a few days to underscore its absolute rejection of this demand.
In 2009, after months of post-election wrangling over the formation of a new Lebanese government, one of the hottest points of contention was over which "side" would be awarded the Ministry of Telecommunications - THAT is how sensitive communications control and infiltration is in Lebanon.
Lebanon's Telecoms Minister Charbel Nahhas said just a few weeks ago that Israel has been capable of altering telecommunications-related data in the country "for a very long time." In a press conference earlier today, Nahhas and others expounded further:
"Israel has set up electronic warfare towers along Lebanon's border and can crack encrypted data, jam communications, view phone subscribers' information, and tap their lines.
Israel "controls information and data packets, and can enter a network, shut down parts and transfer information or delete it."
"They can fabricate calls that originally did not exist."
Israel can obtain information about mobile phone owners, their location, their numbers, and their other phones.
"The network is penetrated at any control point, via a person inside the [phone] company, an agent, or another means."
In light of these facts, it seems unlikely that Hezbollah - a very early adherent to the battle strategy of foiling the enemy's penetration of communications - used a bunch of mobile phones to plan a very high-profile assassination.
Two Sides Taking Stock, Circling the Wagons
So, today, a largely Western-backed investigation into a five-year old murder case that has the ability via the UN Security Council to enforce punishment, is targeting the only successful Arab resistance to Israel, and is basing its evidence on Lebanon's highly-penetrated telecommunications networks...well, that does not sit pretty with one side.
And since 2009 when the STL changed course and lost its credibility with a significant part of the Lebanese population, this seems no longer to be about the man who died. It is a fight between two regional "blocs."
The English-language Daily Star columnist Rami Khouri summed it up well when he wrote recently:
"Stripped to its core, this tension between Hezbollah and the STL is a microcosm of the overarching fact of the modern era in which Western-manufactured Arab statehood has generally failed to gain either real traction or sustained credibility; thus it has fallen on groups like Hezbollah to play a leading role in confronting Israeli and Western power in a manner that most Arab governments have been unable or unwilling to do. Therefore we live through this historic but frightening moment when a century of confrontation reaches a pivotal juncture: the collective will of the Western-dominated world (the Security Council-created STL) confronts the strong rejection and public resistance of the only Arab group (Hezbollah) that has forced an Israeli military withdrawal and confounded the Israeli armed forces, while transcending Arabism and Islamism, religiosity and secularism, Arabs and Iranians, Shiites and Sunnis, and assorted Lebanese Christians and Muslims."
The Middle East Rushes to Intervene
Starting this summer, all the major regional players have paid visits to Lebanon to lower the rising temperature around the STL's potential indictments. From the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani - much beloved for his direct contribution of half a billion dollars to rebuild southern Lebanon after Israel's brutal 2006 war - to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz bin Saud, to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Many of these opposing interests have converged in recent months to take on the unenviable task of averting a full-blown Lebanese "crisis" over the STL. Taking the lead are Syria and Saudi Arabia, each a supporter of an opposing Lebanese bloc.
Hezbollah has vowed that it will not tolerate accusations against a single member of it's organization, rejects allegations that it harbors any "rogue elements," and warns against any arrests. The non-sectarian Lebanese Army, a recipient of US military aid, has intimated that it will not arrest any Hezbollah-related suspects charged by the Tribunal.
On the other side, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain former PM, has refused to abandon the STL, even though he met with Nasrallah earlier in the year to warn him of the Tribunal's direction. Hariri and others have been engaged in the Syrian-Saudi efforts to calm things down, and the PM is due to make his first ever visit to Iran next week, shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan drops by Beirut first on Wednesday.
The Bottom Line
Sitting in Beirut, I can't help notice that it is largely western and local leaders yelling about escalating tensions. These have not hit Lebanon's population quite yet, though you could have heard a pin drop during one of Nasrallah's press conferences this summer, when Beirutis in even the largely non-sectarian district of Hamra disappeared into homes to hear the Hezbollah leader's latest revelations. And people are following the daily ping-pong statements of Lebanese political leaders with care.
What is worrying is the escalating interest of the United States in this Tribunal. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former US ambassador to Lebanon and the frontman for US machinations in Lebanon these days, paid a hurried visit to Beirut in October, directly after Ahmadinejad's highly publicized maiden trip here.
Feltman, who in appearance - and possibly demeanor, if the rumors of his acerbic manner are to be believed - resembles Michael Douglas' character in the 1993 crime thriller Falling Down, bulldozed his way into town after a grandslam show of support for Lebanon by the biggest names in the region, ostensibly to ensure some continued Lebanese support for the Tribunal. It was a poor showing for the Americans, and Feltman did not get all the meetings he demanded. The trip was followed by another $10 million in US contributions to the Tribunal - a State Department official tells me the US's total financial contribution since the investigation began is $30 million, over one-quarter of the Tribunal's voluntary funding from 25 states.
The US is clearly taking a stake in this battle, quite aggressively as of late, even soliciting verbal commitments to the STL from any Arab leader they can find - a significantly pared down "Coalition of the Willing," if you like.
But if you look at the line-up of who really supports the STL - the US, a handful of Western nations, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia (though the latter may change its position shortly) - you see a line-up of nations that have never done a single positive thing for sovereignty, independence and real progress in the region. Ever.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently said: "America's support for a sovereign, independent, and stable Lebanon is rock solid and unwavering...The United States will continue to speak out against those who would undermine Lebanon's stability and its sovereignty...We will continue to encourage actors within Lebanon and across the region to act responsibly and in the best interests of the Lebanese people."
I am not certain that any nation outside the region has done MORE to undermine Lebanon's stability and sovereignty than the United States.
More and more, this Feltman/Clinton crusade resembles the Bush-era legacy in the Middle East. President Bush sought to enhance his global leadership by redefining the region through his "democracy" campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his unconditional support and encouragement of Israeli military belligerence in its 2006 war on Lebanon, strike on an alleged Syrian "nuclear" facility and the Jewish state's 2008/9 devastation of Gaza.
His Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice urged Israel to ignore calls for a ceasefire in the 2006 war, characterizing the carnage as a necessary evil - "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." It appears the Obama administration has not learned that you cannot "tame" people thousands of miles away - their 'will' for a future will always outweigh our 'will' to break them.
This Tribunal is no longer about justice. To weigh one man's death against the lives of four million Lebanese and countless other millions who could be caught up in a regional conflagration is sheer madness.
And for those who think Lebanon and this region can just turn a blind eye and ignore the Tribunal - that too is foolish. The UN Security Council has awarded the investigation its highest investigative status - Chapter 7 - allowing for the international community to enforce its conclusions, militarily if necessary.
In the interim, imagine the trauma of this Levantine nation as the trial draws out, day after day, week after week, month after month - creating divisions, frictions, suspicions to the detriment of Lebanon's fledgling government which has made admirable strides in maintaining its equilibrium and learning the art of compromise this past year.
Recall the days of US Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation into the suicide of deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster and the Whitewater real estate investments of the Clintons. It ended with Monica Lewinsky's blue dress and the president's semen - hardly a worthwhile endeavor.
Can we trust this Tribunal to know when to quit? Not with our attack dogs hell-bent on destroying our perceived regional foes. This could be our next decade's "Iraq" - certain to worsen if Republicans take the White House in 2012.
I don't know "whodunit" either, but perhaps this is an occasion to consider a Hamas-style "Hudna" - the Palestinian resistance group's favorite solution for peace - which effectively imposes a long-term ceasefire until a new generation turns over or the political parties and local populations reach the political maturity to achieve real justice.
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