BEIRUT — The decision on April 29 to release four generals suspected of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri sent shockwaves through Lebanon and around the region.
The generals had been held in a Lebanese prison for nearly four years. They were arrested under the direction of the United Nations International Independent Investigation, established in 2005 and busy ever since collecting evidence in the car bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others.
The U.N. investigation completed its work in this past March and the evidence was turned over to the Lebanese and U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague. The court released the generals April 29 due to what pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen said was was "not sufficiently credible" evidence to continue holding them.
There are no other suspects in custody.
The generals led Lebanon’s most powerful security and intelligence apparatuses during Syria’s 30-year de facto occupation of Lebanon. By occupying the highest of security positions, many Lebanese wondered how the generals, or their Syrian overseers, couldn’t have known about 6,000 pounds of explosives moving around the country that eventually would blow up next to Hariri’s convoy.
Like the generals, the Syrians deny any involvement in the assassination. An indictment of the generals “would have established with virtual certainty Syria’s involvement in the crime,” Lebanon politics observer Elias Muhanna wrote on his blog. But with the generals’ release, Muhanna came to a very different conclusion: “What this means for the future of the Hariri tribunal is unclear, but one can probably safely conclude that Syria is off the hook, barring any major surprises in [the] investigation.”
Rafiq Hariri’s son, Saad, the parliamentary majority leader, used the occasion to voice his continued support for the tribunal and to dispel criticisms that the court was politicized and was being used by the U.S. to put pressure on Syria. Praise for the tribunal quickly came from opposition leaders who had previously criticized the generals’ detention.
But Hezbollah, which had long maintained the generals’ innocence and dismissed the court as biased, took the opportunity to revel in the confirmation of its stance. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made it clear the group would continue to look at the tribunal skeptically, lest it come after Hezbollah allies in Syria or Lebanon again.
“The prosecutor, the international investigation and the international tribunal judges must henceforth prove, through their performance, that they are scientific minded, professional, fair and free of politicization, and that they are persons of integrity,” he said on May 1.
Theories abound on the reasons for the generals' release and the likely impact.
Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper in an editorial gave two theories on the release, the first being simply that that the tribunal was fair and not politicized.
The second theory was not quite so comforting.
After the Hariri assassination in 2005, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia threw their weight behind the March 14 movement. The movement, led by Saad Hariri, is a coalition of anti-Syrian political parties and independents, and named for the so-called Cedar Revolution, a series of anti-Syria protests that followed the killing of Rafiq Hariri.
The U.S. used its support of March 14 to put pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, to disarm Hezbollah and to stop what the U.S. portrayed as Syrian indifference to fighters flowing into Iraq from its territory.
The theory goes that the generals’ release is part of an easing of pressure by the U.S. on Syria in order to coerce Damascus to make a peace deal with Israel. March 14 supporters fear their superpower ally will allow Syria to reassert control over Lebanon in any regional grand bargain for peace.
March 14 has good reason to be worried. The generals' release is the latest in a slew of defeats for the coalition. March 14 recently observed the one-year anniversary of the takeover of West Beirut by Hezbollah and its allies last May. That takeover ended with the Doha accords, which gave Hezbollah a veto over the government and was seen as a defeat for U.S. policy and March 14’s agenda in Lebanon.
And doubt has arisen over the stability of the March 14 coalition itself. Recent moves by Walid Jumblatt, Druze chieftain and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, indicate that the March 14 leader is hedging his bets. Jumblatt, who in the past has been referred to as a "weathervane of Lebanese politics," was recently filmed on a camera phone insulting some of his March 14 allies and criticizing Hariri. He’s made conciliatory gestures toward Hezbollah and its allies.
As Jumblatt has moved toward neutral political ground, U.S. officials have made several quick trips to Lebanon in recent weeks to assure the March 14 coalition that they have not been sold down the river in a deal with Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a visit a few days before the generals’ release, visiting Rafiq Hariri’s grave and meeting with Saad Hariri. A few weeks later the State Department sent Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Hale to Beirut.
"There is no deal with Damascus at Lebanon's expense and no compromise on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon," Hale said after a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
Regardless of the effects in Lebanon and who wins the June elections in Lebanon, and despite the fact the tribunal has no suspects in custody, the court has only just begun operating. A trial is not even slated to begin for several years. The building where the court will reside is still being renovated. And so far no evidence has been made public.
“There might be a public perception that there is not enough evidence, but that remains to be seen,” said Marieke Wierda, a lawyer for the International Center for Transitional Justice and an expert on Lebanon’s tribunal. “This decision only shows that there is insufficient evidence in the cases of [the generals]. The overall state of the evidence is so far unclear and it will take a while before all the evidence is publicized.”
The director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem, said that while the generals’ release was a blow to the March 14 movement, the tribunal itself would continue, though its findings, and their potential impact on Lebanon, were still far from clear.
“If it ends up that the investigation has turned up next to nothing on anybody, then it would all end in defeat or failure,” Salem said. “But if this remains a procedural matter and there has been evidence gathered and it will be presented in a court, then I think he who laughs last laughs longest, and this would have just been a procedural event without much impact on the eventual outcome.”
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