Lebanon tribunal compounds Hezbollah’s troubles

Is the tribunal for Rafiq Hariri’s assasination an “illegitimate” body, or is it a “moment of truth and justice?”

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

As the first trial in The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) opens at The Hague this morning, a divided public and political class will be watching 3000 km away in Beirut. Hezbollah, whose four members will be tried in absentia, sees it as an “illegitimate” body with an “American-Israeli” agenda, while the March 14 camp hails it as a “moment of truth and justice” for the country.

Nine years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the STL which was established in 2007 under United Nations Security Resolution 1757 enters the execution phase. The process is expected to be tedious and legally complex as the first international trial ever against an act of terrorism.

In real political terms, the STL mounts the pressure on Hezbollah at a time when it’s entangled in the Syrian conflict. Yet, it is important not to overestimate the impact of the Tribunal, which is unlikely to bring about dramatic changes to the political landscape or secure the goal of ending impunity and political assassinations that have marred Lebanon’s contemporary history.

Hezbollah’s troubles

While the STL emphasizes in article 3 of its statute ”individual criminal responsibility”, Hezbollah as a group has rejected the tribunal. “It decided from day one to distance itself and saw in it a political tool to undermine the party and disarm its weapons cache” says Samer Abboud, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University, and co-author of the book “Rethinking Hezballah: Legitimacy, Authority, Violence.”.

For decades, political assassinations have haunted Lebanon. Excluding Hariri’s, the series of killings between Kamal Jumblatt in March 1977 and Mohammed Chatah in Dec. 2013 have taken place without any degree of accountability

Joyce Karam

The group’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah decried the STL process as unconstitutional, infringing on the sovereignty of Lebanon and hence did not spare an effort to curtail it since 2006. Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the Fouad Seniora government in 2007, the toppling of Saad Hariri government in 2011, and the pressure on caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to cut the funding were attempts to torpedo the STL.

The party has also blocked access for the STL team in its strongholds.

“Hezbollah saw in this an outside mechanism pointed against the party” says Abboud. The failure to stop the process ultimately forced the tribunal as a fait accompli, Abboud tells Al Arabiya News. “Hezbollah will continue to distance itself and delegitimize the process but at the same time it realizes that this will go on and they cannot stop it.”

‘Organic relationship’

Abboud sees it extremely unlikely that Hezbollah will hand in any of the defendants, partly because of the “organic relationship” it tries to maintain with its social base and the families of those indicted. The four men are: Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hussein Hassan Oneissi, and Assad Hassan Sabra. “These men are probably no longer operational and we don’t even know if they are in Lebanon” says Abboud.

The timing of the trials, coinciding with Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, and a growing Sunni-Shiite rift in Lebanon compounds problems for the group. “It is one more thorn for Hezbollah in the midst of its regional and geopolitical struggle” says Abboud. The largest Lebanese Shiite party has chosen to intervene in Syria last May in a strategic move to protect its arms supply routes and prevent the fall of the Assad regime.

The move, however, created backlash in the Sunni street inside Lebanon, and could have triggered more instability. Three car bombings have occurred in Hezbollah’s area in Southern Beirut since last summer.

An ‘alternative way forward’

On the opposite side of the political spectrum from Hezbollah, March 14 a caolition that was formed following the Hariri assassination sees in the STL a long awaited landmark achievement. The movement, has lost 13 of its leaders in targeted assassinations since 2005. “Despite many hurdles, we got here and proved that there is an alternative route to protest assassinations” says Amal Mudallali, an advisor for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a long time confidante of his father Rafik Hariri. Mudallali was in London on 14 Feb. 2005, the day of the bombing.

She recalls that infamous Monday morning when one of her staffers called with the news of a massive bombing in Beirut. “Initially we did not know who it was, so I called my boss (Rafik Hariri) and when he didn’t answer, I called my colleagues with him and they didn’t answer either.” The agonizing wait and suspicions were later confirmed while Mudallali watched the burnt images and remains of her late boss on CNN.

Haunting Lebanon

For decades, political assassinations have haunted Lebanon. Excluding Hariri’s, the series of killings between Kamal Jumblatt in March 1977 and Mohammed Chatah in Dec. 2013 have taken place without any degree of accountability and at times with no hint on who perpetrated the crime. While Mudallali realizes the limitations on the STL inside Lebanon, she hopes for at least an opportunity to learn what happened and to clear the smoke of that dark day in Beirut.

Abboud fears, however, that the highly politicized interpretation of the STL by both camps (March 14 and Hezbollah) in Lebanon “will not serve to alleviate any of the current tensions but only to exacerbate them.”

Tension on the rise

This tension is already on the rise after the recent violence, and feeds off the power vacuum in the country and continued failure to form a government after the resignation of Mikati last Spring. Additionally, later phases in the STL might require further action from the Lebanese government, notes Abboud. Failure to do so could entail repercussions on parties sheltering those who are convicted, or on Lebanon in general.

For the time being, the STL and the long cold day at The Hague will be very unusual for Lebanon. Even with no culprits behind bars, the Tribunal will shape the debate over political assassinations, and how the Lebanese view each other.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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