There is a sense in Beirut that the prime minister, Saad Hariri, is in a bind because of the recent attacks against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon by Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. But how true is that? A closer look would show that Hariri has substantially more leeway than people assume.
One reason for this is Syria. While President Bashar Assad would like to see the STL eventually disappear, he sees no reason to push for that right away. That’s because any decision the tribunal might take against Hizbullah – an indictment or merely the naming of suspects – would provide Damascus with valuable leverage over the party, helping to restore Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.
What does this mean in practical terms? It means that Syria must place its people at the head of Lebanon’s main security and intelligence agencies – above all military intelligence and the General Security directorate – but also in senior positions in the army and at key facilities such as the airport. For now, Hizbullah has much sway over these institutions. Damascus has a sympathetic ear in the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces, and it seems that State Security, traditionally viewed as close to the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, a close Syrian ally, is taking new applications, suggesting it may be revived as a tool in this balancing game.
The Syrians’ problem is that Hizbullah is more effective on the ground in Lebanon than Syria is. Hariri has a similar problem. Which is why both Assad and Hariri may have a shared interest in waiting for the STL to take a decision in order to employ that in their bargaining with Hizbullah, albeit to achieve separate aims. And it is why Nasrallah, like Iran, is so keen for the Lebanese government to cut ties with the tribunal now, to avoid being forced into making concessions.
Hariri’s calculation is different than Syria’s, yet very similar. He, too, likely seeks to use the leverage of a tribunal pronouncement to appoint his followers to essential posts, and in that way reinforce Lebanese state authority against both Hizbullah and Syria. He, too, would regard as a priority the promotion of individuals less beholden to Hizbullah to head the intelligence and security services, airport security and the army. Ideally, he would also look to obtain guarantees from Hizbullah on its weapons in southern Lebanon.
How would the prime minister react to a tribunal decision pointing the finger at Hizbullah? The most logical scenario is that he would immediately announce that the party’s leadership is innocent of having assassinated his father. He might then wait and see what happens, particularly how the army reacts, since presumably the tribunal, whether it issues an indictment or merely identifies suspects, would ask the Lebanese to make arrests. It’s at that stage that Hariri, but also Syria, would want to negotiate with Nasrallah.
A vital factor here, however, is whether Syria would allow Hizbullah to bring down the government. At the Beirut summit a few weeks ago, the Syrians signed on to a statement that implicitly rejected this alternative. But if they felt that Hariri’s demands on Hizbullah were somehow undermining their own, all options would be open. At that stage the prime minister and Syria would need to consult and determine whether common ground is possible over what each would ask for from Hizbullah. It would become a matter of compromising.
To raise the heat on Hariri, and protect itself, the army would almost certainly respond to any tribunal order by saying that it is unable to arrest Hizbullah members. But that poses certain risks. The army doesn’t want to come across as utterly ineffective, and there continue to be officers dismayed that their institution is becoming an adjunct of Hizbullah. Moreover, a refusal to arrest suspects would not substantially damage Hariri’s political standing, since Hizbullah would still need him to decide on Lebanon’s cooperation with the special tribunal. And here Hariri has a significant card to play.
That card, quite simply, is his resignation. If the army refuses to arrest anyone, Hariri can threaten to resign, to strengthen his hand in his talks with Hizbullah; or if the party manages to bring down his government, he can make his resignation very painful. Either way, the prime minister’s departure could leave behind a mess that both Hizbullah and Syria would not relish having to clean up.
Here’s why. If Hariri were to announce, with his statement declaring Hizbullah’s leadership innocent of Rafik Hariri’s murder, that he also has great faith in the work of the special tribunal, he would poison the waters for any successor prime minister. There has been speculation lately that Hariri might consider stepping down and handing over to someone like Mohammad Safadi, so as to allow him, or someone else, to suspend Lebanon’s collaboration with the tribunal. But the scheme would go nowhere if Hariri praises the work of the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare. In that event, no Sunni prime minister would dare undercut the tribunal, not with Hariri endorsing the institution.
Imagine then what would happen. Hizbullah would be unable to find an effective Sunni partner to scuttle the tribunal; it would remain in the dock before the international community and most Lebanese; and it would have few means to do much about it if Syria and Hariri agree beforehand that the domestic situation needs to remain calm. Indeed, Nasrallah himself would hesitate to destabilize Lebanon, since his unwritten contract with Iran requires him to be prepared to retaliate against Israel in case of an attack against its nuclear facilities. And how could he do that with Lebanon simmering?
Hariri’s strong suit is his resignation. Where he goes, the Sunnis will go too, at least when it comes to Rafik Hariri’s killing. That’s why the prime minister appears to be gambling that no one, not Hizbullah nor the Syrians, really wants him to leave. They don’t want to re-create the situation of 2006-2007, when the opposition was unable to find a Sunni willing to form a parallel government to Fouad Siniora’s. Just as critical, Syria does not want to alienate the Sunnis when it needs them to help bring Hizbullah into line with Syrian priorities.
In the coming months we’ll see what Bellemare has, or doesn’t have. But it is Nasrallah, not Hariri, who is the more worried about the political implications of a tribunal announcement. To assume the contrary is to underestimate the impact if Hariri steps down.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).