BEIRUT: The implementation of arrest warrants issued by a U.N.-backed court against those suspected of involvement in the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik Hariri will be a difficult enterprise likely to be coupled with increased international pressure on Hezbollah and the new Cabinet it dominates, analysts said Thursday.
The indictment and accompanying arrest warrants that a team from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon transmitted to State Prosecutor Saeed Mirza, in addition to media leaks about the names and affiliations of suspects, did not surprise anyone in Lebanon or the rest of the world, according to professor Mohamad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“Nonetheless,” Bazzi told The Daily Star, “there are serious implications that will be put on the table very soon.”
A judicial source told The Daily Star that the indictment identified the suspects as Mustafa Badreddine, Salim al-Ayyash, Hasan Oneissy and Assad Sabra, all members of Hezbollah presumably.
The source said that in normal circumstances, and according to the Memorandum of Understanding inked between the STL and the Lebanese government, Mirza would refer warrants to the concerned security authorities to arrest and detain suspects.
“Afterward the state prosecutor will hand them over to the STL bureau in Beirut,” the source said. “However,” the source added, “in light of Lebanon’s peculiar political situation, following the standard procedure might have dangerous repercussions.”
Mirza will now have to take the matter to Mikati and Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi because he cannot possibly operate without political cover, said the source, adding that political consensus was imperative to start the search for the suspects and arrest them.
Johnny Mounayar, a political analyst and head of the news department at OTV, argued that the biggest challenge currently awaits the new government headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati rather than Hezbollah.
“The Mikati government will endeavor to find the right balance,” he said. “It doesn’t want to start a confrontation, not with the international community nor with Hezbollah.”
According to Bazzi, Mikati has no political cover to act on the arrest warrants, saying the prime minister’s hands are tied.
“The indictment is clearly a public challenge to the Lebanese government,” said the CFR expert. “Mikati might try to find creative ways to carry out the arrests but Hezbollah and its allies can bring down the Cabinet.”
Mounayar, however, said the new Cabinet will most likely ask the concerned security and judicial authorities to look for and arrest suspects. “Now they might be nowhere to be found, but that’s another issue,” he added.
Tribunal officials said the Netherlands-based STL might have to carry out trials in absentia.
Under the STL’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence, Lebanese authorities should report back to the court about efforts to track down suspects within 30 days of receiving the indictment. In case the Lebanese authorities fail to arrest the suspects and the court deems their efforts insufficient, the STL will issue a public advertisement divulging the names of those involved.
If the accused have not been arrested within 30 calendar days of the public advertisements made by the court, the Pre-Trial Judge can ask the Trial Chamber to initiate in-absentia proceedings.
“STL officials are prepared to carry out trials in absentia,” said Bazzi. “But it will be difficult to hand in the next round of indictments with no suspects.”
The analyst added that it would be nearly impossible for the government to avoid a confrontation with the international community.
“The court was created under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, so the U.N. Security Council might decide to take action against the Lebanese government if it fails to carry out arrests,” said Bazzi, who added that this was an unlikely scenario in light of the situation in the region as well as internal debate at the UNSC over military intervention in countries.
“It would also be difficult for Russia and China to approve a resolution forcing Lebanon to carry out those arrests,” he said, adding that such an option was also problematic for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which is seeking some level of stability in the region.
But analysts confirmed that there are serious challenges looming on the horizon. “There is already a move in the Congress to cut all aid to the Lebanese Army,” said Bazzi.
Mounayar said the international community, and particularly the United States and France, will seek to use economic, rather than political pressure on Hezbollah.
They might blacklist rich Shiite financiers or banks for allegedly funding Hezbollah activities in order to stir up resentment against Hezbollah within the Shiite community, he added.
“The international community will certainly exert tremendous pressure on Hezbollah to weaken it, but I expect that some sort of dialogue will take place in the end,” Mounayar added. “Not before at least one year though.”
About Hezbollah’s intriguingly serene reaction to the STL’s release of a classified indictment, Bazzi maintains that the armed group is purposefully putting on this “cool and detached front” because it has been preparing the groundwork all along.
“Hezbollah’s campaign to delegitimize the court was a long and careful process,” he said. “They have been laying the ground to [eliminate] the tribunal and raise questions about its legitimacy for over a year now.”
As for the dynamics of Lebanon’s political scene following the announcement of the STL indictment, Bazzi predicted that political rhetoric might get heated and more problematic into the next few days and weeks.
Mounayar said the March 14 alliance is expected to launch a campaign to score points against their rivals in the March 8 alliance and make up for the series of political losses endured in the past months.
“March 14 might take advantage by lining up international pressure and getting the United States and Europe more involved, so as to gain leverage but the situation in the region has the largest impact on developments in Lebanon,” said Bazzi.
He added that Lebanese politics is so polarized that all campaigning will move public opinion in either direction.
Both Mounayar and Bazzi played down the likelihood of seeing major security incidents taking place in the aftermath of the release of the indictment, but did not rule them out entirely.
“The danger in Lebanon is that a small incident can run out of hand especially if the rhetoric gets even more heated and especially with enough domestic and regional instigators,” said Bazzi.