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LEBANON IS ON THE BRINK
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
May 23, 2007

By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News

While the Lebanese army is fighting a new terrorist group under the label of Fatah Al Islam (Victory of Islam), the real causes of this bizarre battle may be found thousands of miles away in the UN in New York.

Talk to anyone familiar with the UN's investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and you will hear the same message: it is an open and shut case! And, yet some are stirring trouble, including the current fighting in northern Lebanon, to put the whole issue on the backburner.

Serge Brammertz, the European judge who heads the investigation, says he has more than enough evidence to initiate prosecution against those he has identified as suspects.

Brammertz's position is endorsed by Lebanon's democratically elected government of Prime Minister Faoud Siniora, and, if opinion polls are right, backed by more than 65 per cent of the Lebanese people.

And yet, the UN Security Council, which ordered the investigation soon after Hariri's murder in February 2005, is still undecided whether or not to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Like any classical murder enquiry, the investigation into Hariri's assassination had to establish three facts: motive, ability and opportunity.

Detlev Mehlis, Brammertz's predecessor in charge of the investigation, established the motive for the murder as early as the autumn of 2005.

He came out with evidence that showed the Syrian leadership, possibly at the highest level, had, at one point, decided that Hariri was the only Lebanese leader capable of challenging their old ambitions in Lebanon.

At the start of 2005, none of the other players in the Lebanese political scene had any particular interest in wishing Hariri out of the way.

Mehlis, whose interim report was copiously leaked, was forced out of his job under heavy pressure from Syria which, pointing to the fact that he was of Jewish extraction claimed that the judge was acting on behalf of "the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy".

Mehlis was less successful in providing evidence showing that Syria and its allies in the Lebanese secret services had both the ability and the opportunity to carry out the murder. It was clear that those who ordered the murder wanted to cover their tracks by injecting into what was a military operations elements of an amateurish exercise.

Hariri's murder set in motion the law of unintended consequences. The Lebanese were so outraged that, setting aside their communitarian differences, turned out en masse to demand that Syria end its 30-year long occupation of their country. In the general election that followed, the pro-Hariri block and its allies won a majority in the parliament and formed a government dedicated to bringing the murderers to justice.

Marginalise

Unable to stop the investigation, Syria, backed by Iran, tried to put the Lebanese politics on trajectories that would margin-alise the whole Hariri case. One tactic the Syrians deployed was to use Emile Lahoud, the president they had imposed on the Lebanese for a further three years, to paralyse the Siniora government.

Under the Lebanese constitution, laws passed by the parliament and senior appointments made by the government must receive the presidential assent in order to come into effect.

Prompted by the Syrians, Lahoud has been withholding his assent, effectively preventing the government from implementing the programme for which it was elected.

Lahoud's extended term will end later this year, depriving the Syrians of their veto within the Lebanese political system. But they have another card to pay: the Hezbollah and its Maronite ally ex-General Michel Aoun.

Last summer Hezbollah tried to relieve pressure on Syria by triggering a war with Israel. It ended up losing its bases in southern Lebanon and left hundreds of its fighters on the battlefield. The war earned Syria some respite but at a cost that Hezbollah will not be able to absorb anytime soon.

Once it had become clear that even a war with Israel would not stop the Hariri investigation, Syria, and its Khomeinist allies in Tehran, launched what amounted to an attempt at staging a coup through street politics.

For months, Hezbollah and its Aounite allies besieged the seat of the government and managed to bring work to a halt in a number of ministries. In the meantime, political assassinations continued unabated.

Having failed to kill the Hariri investigation through war, street coup and targeted killing of opponents, those who do not want the truth to be fully established have switched to diplomacy as a way out.

The encounter between the United States' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart Wahid Muallem in Egypt earlier this month was the first of many moves by Damascus to prevent the convening f the international tribunal on the Hariri murder.

The carrot that Syria is dangling is the prospect of revived peace talks with Israel. It was this that the Syrian leaders laid out for Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, when she visited Damascus last spring. This is supposed to be so attractive as to trump all other considerations, including the Hariri murder investigation.

Pet project

Syria believes that the Hariri investigation was a pet project of the Bush administration and the French ex-president Jacques Chirac. Well, Chirac has already retied and Bush will soon be out of the White House.

All that Syria needs is to buy time, which it is trying to do by courting Pelosi and wooing the beleaguered Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Allowing such dilatory tactics to succeed, however, would have a deadly effect on the politics of the Middle East far beyond the particular case of Hariri. It would endorse state-sanctioned murder as a legitimate tool of politics, and deal a further blow to the United Nation's already shaky authority.

It could also kill the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people and expose the Western democracies as opportunistic powers less interested in their declared values than in securing concessions from the despotic regimes.

The Security Council has the moral and political duty to positively respond to the Lebanese government's demand and formally set up a tribunal that it promised more than two years ago.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

 

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