The Hague, Netherlands
Almost nine years after the February 14, 2005 murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a car bomb explosion in central Beirut that killed 22 others and wounded more than 200, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has come to fruition. Thursday morning the STL opened its trial against four suspects named in the case, all of them Hezbollah members, including alleged ringleader Mustafa Badreddine, cousin and brother-in-law of the notorious Imad Mughniyeh, the infamous Hezbollah commander assassinated in 2008 who is believed to be responsible for dozens of terrorist acts, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon.
“The question, ‘Who killed Rafik Hariri?’ now has an answer,” Saad Hariri told me Wednesday night in an exclusive interview in his hotel room in The Hague on the eve of the trial. The slain prime minister’s son also served as the Lebanese premier from 2009 until 2011, when Hezbollah and its allies collapsed his government and sent the younger Hariri into exile between Paris and Riyadh. Still the leader of the Sunni community’s largest political bloc, the Future movement, and one of the pillars of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 gathering, Hariri’s absence from Lebanon is due only to an extremely dangerous security situation in which his life would certainly be imperiled. Just last month, Mohamed Chatah, a longtime Hariri ally who’d served as finance minister under Rafik and as an advisor to Saad, was killed in yet another car bombing in Beirut, a short distance from where the elder Hariri was murdered.
When I saw Saad Hariri on Wednesday, he and his aides were still visibly shaken—they’d lost a friend and a colleague and Hezbollah’s campaign of murdering its domestic opponents was still on its bloody march nearly a decade on. However, Hariri, who has often struck observers as a reluctant politician without the charismatic leadership skills of his father, came across as resilient and determined. He spoke clearly and passionately about the message that the trial, and his presence at its opening, is meant to send.
“The message is that political assassinations are no longer accepted in the Middle East,” said Hariri. “This is an extremely important message, for Lebanon and the entire region. This trial marks the first time that an act of terror is tried in an international tribunal. There have been trials for war crimes and genocide, but this sets a precedent.” According to Hariri, “The STL trial should be seen as an instrument in the war on terror.”
Hariri explained that impunity for political murder has long been the norm in the Middle East—no one is ever brought to account for political crimes. “But when my father was assassinated, there was an anger in Lebanon that led to a kind of revolt, and this revolt brought a kind of freedom to Lebanon. So the main point of the STL is to have justice. Many people fear that the trial and its results might bring more instability to Lebanon but the truth is always ugly to the perpetrators of such crimes. But it is beautiful for its victims and those who seek justice.”
Hariri acknowledged that the trial is only the first step in a long and difficult process that he nonetheless sees culminating in a transformation around the Middle East. “We believe impunity for political murder should and will stop. But yes, the assassins still believe they can keep killing, as they did with Mohamed Chatah. They still believe they can do what they want. But we still believe in justice, and March 14 still believes that good will always prevail over evil.”
But if Hariri sees the Middle East bending toward the arc of justice, there’s another regional trend that pays little heed to trials and tribunals, justice and moderation. The men who murdered his father and countless other Lebanese officials, activists, journalists, and innocent bystanders are a part of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regional project, now spreading from Baghdad to Beirut, where Tehran has seeded and supported allies, from Bashar al-Assad to Nuri al-Maliki, to wage a baldly sectarian war pitting a Shiite-led axis against the Middle East’s Sunni majority.
Hariri resisted the notion that it’s a sectarian conflict, or that it has anything to do with religion. To be sure, said Hariri, “politicians will often try to inject religion into politics because it’s a very easy move. But this is not about religion. For Iran it’s about expansionist politics, it’s a political maneuver meant to exploit religious strife and sentiment.”
The real conflict, said Hariri, is between moderates and extremists. “What’s new in the region,” said Hariri, “is that the moderates are fighting back—in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Syria, the moderates are fighting the extremists, regardless of their confessional sect.”
Moderate Syrian Sunnis are fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Hariri, and the same is happening in Iraq. And it’s not just Iraqi Sunnis, the awakening movement and the tribes, that are pushing back against Maliki. “In Iraq the Shia moderates are taking a position against Maliki and Iranian influence. And it’s happening in Lebanon, too, where many Shia are in revolt. Sure, everyone is gung-ho when fighting breaks out, but when they see body bags coming back it’s different. The Shia see the body bags coming back from the fighting in Syria and they are asking, ‘what is Hezbollah doing fighting in Syria?’”
Hariri explained that what he calls the “moderate awakening” is all part of the same trend that the STL trial embodies. If the Middle East is in violent turmoil at present, the “moderate awakening” is pushing it toward non-violence. The problem, however, is that the great power that ostensibly intends to promote moderation, non-violence, and stability in the Middle East has effectively come down on the side of the extremists.
The Obama administration pays lip service to Middle Eastern moderates—Secretary of State John Kerry called to express his condolences over the assassination of Chatah, Hariri told me, and his continued support for the STL—but offers little in the way of practical support. Even before the White House let moderate Syrian rebel units wither on the vine, it stood by idly while Bashar al-Assad and his allies tortured and murdered unarmed protestors. The Geneva II talks scheduled for later this month cannot obscure the fact that by signing on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama effectively partnered with the regime—and against the Syrians whose families, friends and neighbors Assad has slaughtered.
Hariri is grateful to the United States—as well as France and other European powers and the Arabs—for its contributions to the STL, but at a certain point Arab moderates are likely to wonder why the White House typically waits until they are dead before they are tendered support. Indeed it is not clear that the administration is even capable of distinguishing moderates from extremists. According to White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, standing aside while Hezbollah and al-Qaeda duke it out would benefit U.S. interests—as if the United States has no interest in American allies, i.e. moderates, prevailing or even surviving the crossfire.
If the Obama administration believes that its engagement with Iran and the interim deal over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program will stabilize the Middle East, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Earlier this week, Iran’s lead negotiator with the White House, Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, laid a wreath on the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, the man who may well have given the orders to his cousin to kill Rafik Hariri.
“Maybe there’s something good that will come out of the P5+1 interim deal with Iran,” says Saad Hariri. “Some people think we want conflict, but it’s the last thing we want. The issue is that the United States knows exactly what Iran is up to in the region. It wants to convince the west that it is moderate but that is still far from being proven. And then if Iran doesn't change policies and still the United States decides to turn a blind eye to what Iran is doing, then that’s U.S. policy, not mine.”
Instead, as the most outspoken leader of the Middle East’s “moderate awakening,” with the STL Hariri has chosen to confront the assassins head on.