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Has Hassan Nasrallah been too hasty?

Friday 23 July 2010

If there were doubts about whether Hizbullah participated in the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, for many people the party’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, seemed to dispel them last week by describing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as an “Israeli project” because it might indict Hizbullah members.

Nasrallah is caught in two sets of binds. The first has to do with how Saad Hariri and his government will react if party members are accused. The secretary general’s linking the tribunal to Israel shows that he expects Hariri to end all cooperation between the Lebanese state and the institution, a position echoed by Wi’am Wahhab, relaying Syrian preferences. Yet Hariri is unlikely to yield, because he can see that Nasrallah has limited options if he refuses to do so.

Hizbullah spokespersons have warned in recent weeks that Hariri should be careful: Any effort to use indictments against Hizbullah may result in a repeat of May 2008, when the group overran western Beirut and tried to take over parts of the Aley district. What worries Hizbullah is that, if indictments come, Hariri will declare that he does not believe the party’s leadership was involved in his father’s assassination, implying that those accused were rogue elements. This would undermine Hizbullah’s credibility, show that Nasrallah doesn’t control his own organization (let him then try to sell Hizbullah as the vanguard of an effective national resistance), and make the party beholden to Hariri, but also, more generally, to Syria.

In that context, a new attack against western Beirut seems absurd. Nor can Hizbullah attack the mountains, because Walid Jumblatt is now more or less on the party’s side. Destabilizing the government would also be difficult, unless Syria sees an interest in doing so to gain greater leverage over Hariri. But for Hizbullah to bring down the government is much trickier. The Hariri government is, above all, the fruit of a Syrian-Saudi compromise. Hizbullah doesn’t have the latitude to damage relations between Riyadh and Damascus.

So there is not much Nasrallah can do, except rely on Syria to ensure that the party isn’t greatly weakened by the ensuing backlash that would follow eventual indictments. The Syrians are as unenthusiastic about the tribunal as Nasrallah is, but being pragmatic they would use any legal accusation to enhance their power on the Lebanese scene, even at the expense of their Iranian and Hizbullah partners. Ultimately, President Bashar Assad seeks to return Lebanon entirely to the Syrian fold, and indictments would open doors allowing him to play on Lebanese divisions to Syria’s advantage.

Nasrallah is caught in another bind as well. His foremost task, as defined by his relationship with Iran, is to prepare Lebanon for the possibility of a conflict with Israel in the event of an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. He has largely succeeded on that front. Hizbullah has rearmed, has managed to neutralize serious opposition to its weapons from within the government, and largely controls the activities of the Lebanese Army in southern Lebanon, not to say the major decisions taken by the army’s intelligence service.

Indictments would throw Hizbullah’s strategy into disarray. For a start, the party cannot maintain Lebanon’s readiness for war if it chooses to go on the offensive domestically in order to pressure Hariri and the government into denouncing the special tribunal. Nasrallah would either have to opt for domestic instability, which would only divide the country, or avoid that path, so as to preserve some sort of united front against Israel. The secretary general could not do both.

That is why Nasrallah is now focused on rallying the Shiite community behind Hizbullah, by saying the tribunal is an Israeli weapon. No one else will buy that argument. But even the Shiites are not keen to see their villages turned into parking lots, especially on Iran’s behalf. Nasrallah would have his work cut out for him in holding the ground psychologically and politically for a war with Israel if indictments are issued. Shiites would still be wary of war, understandably, while Sunnis would be looking for revenge against the party they believe murdered their late leader.

When all is said and done, are indictments coming? Reports this week that investigators will carry out a test explosion next fall in Bordeaux replicating the one that killed Rafik Hariri suggest we should be careful about predicting indictments this year. When the president of the special tribunal, Antonio Cassese, told this newspaper last May that he expected indictments to be issued between October and the end of the year, he retracted the statement a day later, plainly at the request of prosecutor Daniel Bellemare. Cassese must realize that unless indictments are issued before 2011, securing financing for the tribunal next year will become complicated. That may explain why he is pushing the prosecutor on a short deadline.

But what does Bellemare have in hand that is new? If he had enough to indict, he would have done so already rather than engage in technological experiments – whether three-dimensional photography of the crime scene in Beirut or the Bordeaux explosion. When investigators were last in Lebanon, they failed to interview most of the Hizbullah members they asked to see. If you are unable to interview individuals, it becomes hard to indict. Telephone analyses or phone-taps can bring to light revealing patterns or conversations, but it’s not certain that, absent corroborating information based on testimony, they are enough to prepare airtight accusations.

A new assessment of the Hariri explosion is a telltale sign that things are not going well. If there are lingering doubts, for example, about whether the blast was above ground or below ground, then we are perhaps further from indictments than many imagine. But ultimately we should not miss the forest for the trees. A crime was committed, regardless of how, and Bellemare has not managed to arrest anybody who might shed light on what actually happened.

Maybe Nasrallah is being too hasty in incriminating his own party.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. His “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster) has recently been published.

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