US Foreign Policy

Can Lebanon Avoid its Impending Autumn of Discontent?

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This article first appeared on

Beirut has witnessed a distinct spike in tensions in recent days as elements across Lebanon’s diverse political spectrum brace for impending indictments to be issued by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Speculation has been rife that the indictments will name several members of the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah. This outcome could in turn trigger a collapse of the fragile consensus government, or worse, sectarian violence in Beirut and beyond. Indeed, many observers compare the tense atmosphere in Beirut today to the period preceding Lebanon’s last bout with significant sectarian strife in May 2008 when scores were killed and wounded over several days of fighting.

Jamil al-Sayyed’s announcement of 33 arrest warrants against prominent Lebanese and international officials is the latest escalation in the ongoing crisis. Those named in the warrants stand accused of providing “false testimony” to the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. While Syria hasn’t officially admitted a role in the arrests, this move is likely Damascus’ latest attempt to cast doubt on the STL and aims to pressure the Lebanese government, particularly Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to disavow the U.N. court.

The tribunal crisis encompasses far more than what the legal jargon of indictments and false testimony might suggest. Explicitly or implicitly, it embodies all the complex challenges that confront Lebanon: Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions, Hezbollah’s weapons, confessional power-sharing, the influence of regional players particularly Syria (recall that suspicions initially centered on the Assad regime — some of whose members were specifically mentioned and then redacted in the first U.N. investigation report), and broader proxy battles between the West and the Hezbollah/Syria/Iran alliance.

For Hezbollah, the anticipated STL indictments appear to represent nothing less than an existential threat. Perhaps the fear is that in “pulling a Libya,” i.e., sacrificing some low-level (call them “undisciplined”) operatives in the name of sating the U.N. process, the investigation will continue and eventually target senior Hezbollah officials, even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself. Or that Hezbollah’s culpability in the Hariri assassination will deal a fatal blow to Hezbollah’s professed raison d’etre of “resistance” against Israel, instead reducing the organization to nothing more than a sectarian militia among many in Lebanese confessional politics. Hezbollah may well believe that the U.N. tribunal process seeks to achieve what U.N. resolutions (1559 and 1701) and war with Israel could not: its disarmament, if not outright destruction.

As such, Hezbollah has embarked on a multi-pronged strategy — mirroring its tactics during Lebanon’s 2006-2008 political impasse — to derail the STL. First, they have unleashed a fairly sophisticated public relations campaign to discredit the U.N. court as “politicized,” instead accusing Israel as the real perpetrator of the crime. Indeed, in a series of interviews and press conferences, Nasrallah laid out a detailed, if convoluted, case against Israel — complete with video clips — and deemed the STL process a Zionist plot. Prime Minister Hariri added to the drama in an interview last month with the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat by blaming “false witnesses” for what amounted to “politicized” accusations against Syria in the investigation of his father’s murder. Hariri’s interview, which appeared to absolve Syria of involvement in the case, brought the Shakespearean tragedy of his father’s assassination full circle, deepening Saad’s calculated rapprochement with Syria while casting further doubt on the STL’s credibility.

Further ratcheting up the pressure, Hezbollah is now undertaking a political coercion strategy, threatening to block funding for the tribunal (Lebanon is responsible for providing 49 percent of the STL’s funding), if not bring down the government entirely. Hezbollah and its allies comprise a “blocking third” in Lebanon’s consensus government, allowing them to veto key cabinet decisions and paralyze the political system. Indeed, as a further escalation, ministers allied with Hezbollah could resign en masse, effectively bringing down the government.

Finally, failing these public relations and political tactics, Hezbollah could resort to massive street demonstrations and possibly outright violence. A recent episode at the Beirut airport in which armed Hezbollah members “escorted” former pro-Syrian general Jamil Sayyed — protecting him from the state prosecutor’s summons for questioning — serves as a potent reminder of potential flashpoints in a politically charged atmosphere. The general — together with three other security officials — was held for four years without bail on possible charges related to the Hariri assassination before being released for lack of sufficient evidence. He has demanded that “false witnesses” be brought to justice, calling Prime Minister Hariri a “criminal” and demanding the government be toppled.

Lebanon’s STL conundrum is often depicted as embodying a necessary trade-off between justice and stability. Either the U.N. tribunal proceeds unimpeded with its work leading to indictments that would destabilize Lebanon and possibly plunge it into civil war — or the STL process is aborted, placed on some type of indefinite delay, and Lebanon is spared the expected instability, while Rafiq Hariri’s killers are never brought to justice.

Yet, Lebanon rarely fares well in either/or scenarios. Indeed, the Lebanese mantra “neither victors nor vanquished” offers the best guidance for seeking a peaceful exit from the crisis which threatens not only Lebanon’s fragile order, but regional stability as well. Lebanon’s fractious parties — together with Saudi Arabia, Syria, other Arab states and possibly France — must engage immediately to prevent impending violence. Lebanon’s National Dialogue process should serve as the blueprint for such talks — perhaps convened outside the country either in the region (Doha II?) or in Europe. Surely, in the short term, dialogue will not resolve the deep issues embedded in Lebanon’s STL crisis. But dialogue is certainly a better option than fighting and will spare the Lebanese the agony of another May, 2008 or worse.





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