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Hezbollah's Way or the Highway on Hariri

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"This is the answer for the people asking why March 14 members were the ones who were assassinated. The answer is that Israel wants the blame to fall on Syria and Hezbollah."

On a hot summer night, without losing a beat, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, offered his own case against Israel for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Monday's blistering speech had been highly anticipated since Nasrallah had indicated last week he would reveal "new evidence" of the truth in Hariri's killing. In many ways, however, it is irrelevant whether or not the accusation against Israel is true or not. In laying down the only acceptable version of the truth to Hezbollah, Nasrallah has essentially painted all those who would question it as treasonous. As a consequence, he has paved the way for more civil unrest in the country, when ultimately the international community or other Lebanese parties oppose Hezbollah's official line.

Rafik al-Hariri's assassination on February 14, 2005, shook Lebanon. For over a decade Hariri had stood as Syria's man inside the country; yet, after Syria extended by coercion the term of the then President of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, Hariri decided to resign as Prime Minister and go into vociferous opposition. It was a dangerous period in the region, with Iraq in full-blown conflict, and Syria under constant censure from the United Nations (particularly resulting from UN Resolution 1559). Syria itself, had seen its rule relatively unchallenged in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990. Hariri's death mobilized the Lebanese, and the subsequent Cedar Revolution brought about the withdrawal of Syrian forces and a redrawing of the political map (albeit, expectedly with the same players).

His death was followed by the assassination of a number of other figures in the March 14 movement (which includes the Future Movement, Progressive Socialist Party, Kataeb Party, Lebanese Forces, and several others). At the time when the Tribunal was created in 2006 (UNSC Resolution 1664), it was Syria which was considered to be the number one suspect in the series of murders. Hezbollah, however, since the beginning opposed the Tribunal, as did Syria, considering its creation as part of a political trap. Since its creation, the STL, as it's known, has not indicted a single suspect (although it released four), and there have only been rumblings about what conclusions it will draw (gleaned from unattributable leaks). This summer, however, there has been a rising belief that an indictment is forthcoming perhaps as early as the fall. More surprisingly (or not), it is expected that members of Hezbollah will be indicted, a view expressed by Nasrallah himself.

Since the Doha Agreement in 2008, Lebanon's political forces came back from the brink of another civil war to restore stability in the country. Moreover, the formation of a unity government in November restored a fragile Hariri-Hezbollah detente (with Saad Hariri, the current PM and son of Rafik.) In the last year, Hezbollah has been cooperating increasingly with the Lebanese Armed Forces, and this has led to a number of counter-espionage operations and arrests. In many ways, it was a victory for Hezbollah when the recent border conflict with Israel flared up, and the movement was nowhere to be found; instead, it was the army and government singing the words of resistance. Nasrallah knows that an indictment by the STL threatens the current situation benefitting Hezbollah. An accusation by the Tribunal would be catastrophic. As a result, Hezbollah's leader went on the offensive, first by accusing PM Saad Hariri of already knowing in advance the results of the Tribunal's investigation (in a speech in late July), and then by providing "evidence" of Israel's complicity in Rafik al-Hariri's death on Monday.

In a complicated region full of intrigue, it is not inconceivable that Israel, Hezbollah, or Syria could each be responsible for the death of a political figure. I remember when I met a leading Sunni politician (and current minister) three years back, he told me: "The Tribunal is a political body. It will not lead us to the truth. We will probably never know who killed Hariri, Israel, Syria or someone else." In fact, the truth, as Nasrallah knows, is not so important. In Lebanon, everybody moves forward, sometimes acknowledging but often ignoring (but never forgetting) the blood-soaked ground they walk on. Earlier this year, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt restored his relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which he had previously vowed never to do; of course, he had maintained a warm relationship with Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad for nearly twenty years, this despite the fact that it is widely accepted that Hafez al-Assad killed Walid's own father, Kamal Jumblatt.

For Nasrallah, he simply needed to create an environment where doubt of the Tribunal would be pervasive. The actual truth is simply a luxury. Of course, he did offer a compelling case against Israel, to create an alternative theory of the crime so to speak. He cited the case of an Israeli spy, Ahmad Nasrallah (no relation) who was apprehended in 1996 in Lebanon (but has since escaped to Israel), and showed video of an alleged confession, commenting:

After interrogating Ahmad Nasrallah and his confession of photographing houses of Hezbollah leaders, he also admitted that he had been blackmailing Hariri. He admitted that he had been trying to control the course of Hariri's motorcade through deluding him into believing that Hezbollah wants to murder him.

Nasrallah (the Hezbollah leader) also showed footage showing that Israel had allegedly monitored Hariri's movements, and promised more from the actual day of the assassination. A detailed account of the speech can be found on Al-Manar's website. What was daunting about the speech, however, was not the litany of evidence offered by Nasrallah, but rather the stark choice he implicitly presented to the Lebanese people: accept our version on Hariri's death or else. It takes little imagination to go back to May 7, 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen stormed various Beirut neighborhoods such as Hamra to understand who holds power in the country. Yet, is that the legitimacy that Hezbollah seeks? That to convince others of its claims it must play on their fears? Is it wise to create an environment where it is tantamount to treason to resist the resistance, even at an intellectual level?

Hezbollah may be able to cast aside today figures such as the Kateab's Amin Gemayyal when he insists any evidence must be judged by the STL and not in the media, but for how much longer? Ultimately, Nasrallah is playing a very dangerous game. He is seeking to be part of the Lebanese state, but only if he is the only judge, jury, and executioner. It is a game Hezbollah has perhaps quietly learned from its southern neighbor after all these years.

Taufiq Rahim is a Visiting Scholar at the Dubai School of Government, and blogs daily at TheGeopolitico.com.