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  • Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 - 12:46 PM
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Lebanon five years later: no peace in sight

By Missing Peace

Last week five years ago the second Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah (Hizb’Allah) began.

It was a war which initially brought the organization unprecedented power inside Lebanon and a formerly unknown status in the Arab world.

Now however, it seems that the real water-shed event for Hezbollah’s position was not that war, but the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated on February 14th 2005 in one of the most shocking political murders that Lebanon had ever seen.

Since the Second Lebanon war Hezbollah has rebuilt its forces, tripled its missile arsenal aimed at Israel and has taken over Lebanon politically.

At the same time the movement, once popular as the ‘resistance movement’ against Israel, has no doubt lost the support of the majority of the Lebanese people.

This process began in January 2007 when Hezbollah’s forces invaded Beirut in an attempt to force its will upon the Lebanese government.

A civil war was narrowly avoided, but in May 2008 Hezbollah leader Nasrallah sent in his troops again. This time he secured the collaboration of the Syrian Socialist National Party.

The fascist pro-Syrian Lebanese militia helped Hezbollah to stage a de facto coup d’état: the ‘resistance’ had become an occupying power.

The Sunni Arab world, seeking to avoid the fall of Lebanon, organized a conference in Doha Qatar at the end of May 2008.

Rather than securing the protection of the legitimate government, the conference ended in surrender to Hezbollah’s demands.  It sealed Hezbollah’s de-facto take over of Lebanon but also signaled the end of the Beirut Spring, which in fact was the first in a continuing string of Arab uprisings.

But Hezbollah’s seemingly untouchable position became shaky after news broke that the Special Tribunal of Lebanon, which investigated the Rafik Hariri assassination, had found evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement in the murder.

Now, following the indictment of four Hezbollah members by the STL, and with the unfolding revolution in Syria threatening the rule of Hezbollah patron Bashar el Assad, Lebanon once again could descend into the abyss.

Another civil war or a new and devastating conflict with Israel is certainly possible.

The murder of Rafik Hariri:
On June 28th, 2011 the Special Tribunal of Lebanon (STL) indicted four members of Hezbollah for their involvement in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Directly following the assassination it was commonly believed that Syria was responsible. Over time however, accusations against Hezbollah were raised too.

In his book “The Road to Fatima Gate” Lebanon expert Michael J. Totten wrote that Assad feared a Hariri win in the 2005 elections, thereby undermining Syria’s influence in Lebanon.

A short while before the assassination, Assad ordered Hariri to extend the term of the former’s long-time ally President Emile Lahoud by another three years.

Hariri initially rejected this order, but gave in as soon as he understood that he had no choice: Assad was still too powerful. Moreover Hariri knew that Hezbollah would most probably assist Syria by inflicting mayhem on Lebanon’s streets in the event that he did not comply with Assad’s order.

In addition, the Lebanese opposition started to demand that the Taif Agreement and UN Resolution 1559 would be implemented. The Taif agreement was signed in 1989 in order to put an end to Lebanon’s Civil War. The agreement called for the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops. UN resolution 1559, passed in 2004, also called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon –meaning Syria – as well as for the disarmament of all Lebanese militias – meaning Hezbollah.

Apart from the prospect of Hariri’s election victory and the growing opposition against Syria, there was also American and French pressure on Assad. Both countries had lost patience with his involvement in Lebanon.

Assad felt threatened and apparently decided to remove the challenge to his rule in Lebanon. It is now believed that he ordered Hezbollah to eliminate Hariri.

The Cedar revolution:
The repercussions of this assassination were tremendous. The murder triggered the so called Cedar Revolution and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29 year occupation.

The Cedar Revolution started as a series of demonstrations throughout Lebanon and began immediately after Hariri’s murder on February 14th 2005. The demonstrations were mainly held in Beirut. The protestors called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, an international investigation of Hariri’s murder, the replacement of the Syrian-influenced government and free parliamentary elections.

Large sections of Lebanon’s population took part in these demonstrations. Both Christians and Muslims took to the streets together in order to demand a Lebanon free of Syrian occupation.

Alarmed by the growing rage at Syria’s occupation and fearful of losing Iranian weapon supply via the Syrian border, Hezbollah reacted on March 8th. The organization bused 500,000 Hezbollah supporters into Beirut for a pro-Syria demonstration.

March 14th movement:
Six days later on March 14th a million Lebanese Druze, Christians and Sunnis responded by staging the biggest demonstration in Lebanon’s history.

Nabil Abou-Charaf was one of the organizers of the March 14th demonstration. He told Western journalists the following: “There were only 200 of us at first, we held demonstrations and were arrested, beaten and tortured. But we kept on going anyway. Now we number one million. The Syrians, their Lebanese puppets and Hezbollah can’t stop us now. We are too strong and too many.”

Thus what started out as a small group of people became a large movement. In the end the March 14th movement succeeded in toppling the Syrian-backed government and ousting the Syrian troops from Lebanese soil.

Another demand of the movement was also met. On March 1st, 2009 the international investigation into Hariri’s murder officially started work.The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was charged with the prosecution of the assassins according to Lebanese law.

STL indictment:
From its inception the STL has triggered a very profound political crisis in Lebanon. As a result, the mainly pro-western coalition government of Sa’ad Hariri (Rafik Hariri’s son) collapsed in January 2011. During Hariri’s visit to Washington Hezbollah withdrew its support for his government. Hizballah’s action was motivated by the progress in STL’s investigation into Hariri’s assassination.

The fall of Sa’ad Hariri’s government paved the way for the de-facto Hezbollah take over of the Lebanese government. This also became clear from the appointment of Najib Miqati, the current Lebanese Prime Minister, who was chosen by Hezbollah and is known for his good ties with Syria’s president Bashar el-Assad.

Saad Hariri however, refused to recognize the appointment of Miqati, stating that this move was a Hezbollah-led coup d’état. In addition he also refused to cooperate with the new government. The STL indictments have aggravated the tensions between the opposition and Hezbollah.

Fears are real that this may lead to renewed sectarian strife.  In May 2011 the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia advised Saad al-Hariri to leave Lebanon because of fear of an attempt on his life.

The STL has officially indicted four Hezbollah members. The indictment did not mention the identities of the accused but within a few hours Lebanese media published their names.

The STL gave the Lebanese authorities 30 days to act upon the indictments, if they fail to do so, the tribunal will then make the details of the indictment public and order the suspects to appear before the court.

The tribunal further warned the Lebanese government that failure to arrest the four suspects would cause the international community to force compliance by means of sanctions and other measures.

Nasrallah’s denials and threats:
As expected, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has denied any involvement in Hariri’s assassination. Instead he blamed Israel and the US for Hariri’s death, calling the tribunal “an Israeli project”. He also said that the tribunal is biased, corrupt and consists of some former CIA agents, prompting STL’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, to defend his staff’s integrity and professionalism.

In a televised speech on Saturday, July 2nd 2011, Nasrallah proclaimed that Hezbollah will never turn over its members. He said that no Lebanese government will be able to carry out any arrests, not in 30 days, 30 years or even 300 years. He also added: “we reject the STL along with each and every void accusation it issues, which to us is the equivalent of an attack against Hezbollah”.

He promised that there would be no civil war following this indictment, but stated at the same time that peace in Lebanon was dependent on the government’s compliance with Hezbollah’s power.
Sa’ad Hariri responded on Tuesday July 12th by launching a blistering verbal attack on Nasrallah. “if Nasrallah comes out in 300 press conferences, he will not change the content of the indictments”, Hariri said.

Before Nasrallah’s speech the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, promised that his country would respect the international indictments “as long as they did not pose a threat to peace and stability”.

The opposition did not accept this and called upon Mikati to fully support the STL’s indictments. The March 14th movement rejected the claim that revealing the truth would undermine Lebanon’s stability. In addition the opposition threatened to topple Miqati’s government unless he fully respects the STL indictment.

Miqati slammed the calls of the opposition, saying that the opposition is only violently attacking the government and thereby hindering Lebanon’s interests, thus sabotaging the country.

It is clear that the current situation in Lebanon could develop into another round of sectarian strife.

The relations between the various groups are very fragile and have the tendency to explode easily.

As long as Hezbollah continues not to be disarmed and the Iranian, Syrian backing of the movement continues, the opposition stands no chance.

The fall of the Assad regime in Syria however, could dramatically change this situation. A Sunni led revolution in Syria will reverberate in Lebanon and will certainly give a boost to the Sunni dominated March 14th movement.

Nasrallah can expect vengeance at the hands of the Sunni’s both in Syria and Lebanon should Assad be ousted.
To the Sunni’s Nasrallah has become an outright enemy since he sent Hezbollah forces to help Assad massacre his opponents in Syria.

There is no doubt that Nasrallah is monitoring closely what is happening with his allies in Syria. This became clear when Hezbollah reportedly moved its weapons from Syria to Lebanon at the end of June.

Another scenario that could develop from the STL crisis is a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.

It is expected that Iran will not passively stand by if the Assad regime is toppled.

Assad’s fall would be a devastating blow to the so called ‘axis of evil’ and would have serious repercussions for Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon and its ability to confront Israel. This explains why Nasrallah is trying to divert attention to Israel.

This week for example, UNIFIL held emergency talks with Israeli and Lebanese military officials. The meeting took place after Lebanon filed a complaint about supposed Israeli border violations.

Recently the Lebanese government has also started to warn Israel about the demarcation of its maritime borders after large quantities of gas and oil were discovered in the offshore areas near Israel’s coast.

The Jerusalem Post reported on the July 11 2011 that Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Mansur had issued a statement warning Israel. He said: “this is an aggression on our gas and oil rights and we will not remain silent… This is a de facto policy that will not bring peace for Israel. Israel is creating a new area of tension.”

Lebanese Forces commander Samir Geagea, apparently fearing an escalation, called upon the Lebanese government not to jump into a regional dispute over the maritime borders.

He also warned against the possibility that Hezbollah might make a “strategic decision” which may harm the interests of the Lebanese cabinet.

On July 14th Hezbollah’s deputy chief Naim Qassem issued his own warning against Israel’s maritime border ‘threats’. “Lebanon will remain vigilant in order to regain its full rights, whatever it takes” he said.

The creation of a new dispute with Israel might be Hezbollah’s solution to avoid the arrest of its members and to prevent further erosion of its internal Lebanese position.

Moreover, it could also be the solution to the internal Syrian crisis which is threatening the pact between Syria, Iran and the Hezbollah dominated Lebanese government.

If that happens, it would not be the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that an internal problem in an Arab country is converted into war with Israel.