The perennial Middle East crisis known as Lebanon has entered a new phase with the fall of Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri’s government. The proximate cause of the government’s collapse was the withdrawal from Lebanon’s coalition Shiite and opposition ministers aligned with Hezbollah. They object to Hariri’s support for the U.N.-authorized Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. It’s little wonder —the Party of God’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah fears that the STL will soon indict members of Hezbollah.
Such indictments would have significant implications for Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran, for Lebanese democrats, and even for Israel and the U.N. But the stakes are large for us, as well. America has, to this day, given its full rhetorical support to the tribunal. But, more importantly, that support reflected America’s long-term interest in a moderate government in Lebanon, and in reducing Syrian and Iranian influence at the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Our broader interests are entangled in the unfolding crisis in Lebanon.
The elder Hariri had opposed Syria’s and its allies’ chokehold on Lebanon. The truck bomb that ripped his life away left a crater in the streets and in Beirut’s politics, for the scale of the attack led many to suspect Hezbollah, aided by a foreign hand. Around that crater rose the Cedar Revolution of democratic forces that reclaimed their land and, with Western support, ultimately drove Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. Americans of both parties praised Lebanon’s new freedom. But punishment and further geopolitical consequences from the assassination were postponed pending the STL’s findings.
Knowing indictments would one day come, Hezbollah and its allies predictably delayed the investigation and prepared their defenses. Obdurate Lebanese pro-democracy figures have been killed or pressured. In May, 2008, Hezbollah seized the streets of Beirut and negotiated new political arrangements, as the West watched. Emboldened, a stronger Hezbollah has proclaimed that it would “cut off the hands” of any who serve indictments on its members. And now, with flair, Hezbollah has brought down Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government while he visited the White House. “What a coincidence,” the State Department spokesman said acridly. If it was expected that Hariri would be quickly re-nominated to the post, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s decision to join officially the Hezbollah-led opposition, a choice apparently made under threat of violence, may forestall Hariri’s candidacy.
The region senses the new, compromised Lebanon bowing to the new reality – power, not justice, is in the air. Lebanon feels the pull of rising, unchecked powers that would claim Lebanon as their instrument against the West. Saad Hariri has had to pay obeisance in Damascus and Tehran to the patrons of his father’s alleged murderers. It would be nice to think that the son had learned that these patrons played no part in the crimes of the past or the defense of the guilty, but none in the region believe that to be his view. Meanwhile, Iran arms Hariri’s enemies, while some in Lebanon hail the self-proclaimed Shia champion of Islam. A more assertive Turkey enters as well; when his government fell, Hariri did not linger in Washington, but quickly went to Ankara.
Now comes the next phase of this prolonged race between a legal process and an armed resistance. If the indictments so long in coming go long unfulfilled, if they leave untouched those widely believed to have instigated the assassination, then the region will conclude that the victims and their friends have little will left for this fight.
This will mark the final success of the perpetrators’ strategy. They will have understood well the lands against which they plotted. Pursuing these indictments will bring violence, or even civil war, Western experts on the politics of the Levant say, adding with knowing resignation that few there want more violence now. That, as far as it goes, may be true enough. But the judgments of the democrats in Beirut are based on the forces they have come to know for six bloody years. They have no cause to suspect that those who killed in 2005 have abandoned their goals. By contrast, Western support will seem to have brought but temporary solace to our friends; the Cedar Revolution, which began with a bang, may leave only smoke.