Jul 6th 2011

"Pffft" Went the UN Tribunal in Lebanon

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

On Thursday, the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a Security Council backed investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, delivered its first round of indictments against four suspects.

Some had predicted that after six years of anticipation, followed by a year of leaked disclosures on suspects, followed by months of awaiting "imminent" indictments, the actual moment of truth may be - well - anti-climatic.

Nobody could have predicted quite how non-momentous an event this would be.

Four Hezbollah Members Charged
As expected, the accused four are allegedly affiliated with Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, and reportedly include a military commander and a US citizen. As expected, Hezbollah initially ignored the whole thing.

No surprises from the camp of those who support the STL either. The usual suspects applauded the indictments and insisted that Lebanon adhere to its international obligations in assisting this Tribunal.

Hezbollah has claimed that the Tribunal is an "Israeli/American plot" to undermine the group, and charges that the investigation is "politicized." These allegations have resonated with a large number of Lebanese, particularly after the revelation that the UN commission had based its early findings on highly compromised testimony from "false witnesses."

The commission appeared to opportunistically switch its investigation from Syrian suspects to Hezbollah in 2009, when western nations were trying to rebuild ties with Syria's President Bashar al Assad. Recent media reports suggest that the Tribunal has re-focused some attention on Syria in the past months, just as these same nations have washed their hands off Assad. Israeli media reports on Saturday suggest that subsequent indictments may include senior Syrian officials, including the president's brother.

A series of leaks and disclosures have undermined the UN investigation further. One WikiLeaks Cable from September 2008 (three years after the investigation began, and only months before its focus switched to Hezbollah) even shows the current Tribunal Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare imploring Lebanon's former US Ambassador Michele Sison to help him decide which Syrians to pursue for investigation:

"On this issue, Bellemare repeated what he said in the IWG meeting (reftel): that he did not want to go to Syria until the USG (United States Government) or other sources had provided names of leads he should ask to interview and other information. If Syria denied his request to interview these people, then he would have evidence of Syrian non-cooperation. Just asking would give some indication to others in Syria where his investigation might be headed, which could provoke more cooperation "if I hit the right person."

Impartial or not, the Tribunal has managed to split the Lebanese people and their political representatives down the middle. Surprising then that the country barely registered a ripple from the indictments handed down on Thursday. It is possible that this reflects a critical turning point in the country's interest in this investigation.

Bigger Fish To Fry
Lebanon has lately been distracted by two major developments - the first, is the formation of a new government with a new majority coalition; the second, possibly more critical event, is the internal turmoil flaring within its influential neighbour, Syria.

The UN Tribunal which could, at worst, undermine domestic and regional confidence in Hezbollah, cause some sectarian strife, and subject Lebanon to punitive international sanctions, is chickenfeed compared to the repercussions of a full-blown Syrian implosion.

In the most pessimistic scenario, Syria's domestic strife could evolve into an Iraq-style sectarian civil battle that would spill over and reignite sectarian divisions in a line from the Persian Gulf to the Levant, creating a new hub for Salafi jihadists who are currently getting slammed by US forces in the Arabian Peninsula. While this could also mean serious trouble for allies of Iran like Hezbollah and Hamas, it would also create a security vacuum where weapons flow freely in all directions.

Tribunal? What Tribunal?

Lebanon's New Majority
Predating the Arab Awakening that has swept much of the Middle East, was the formation of a new majority coalition in the Lebanese government. Back in January when the STL was actually still a big deal in the region, Lebanon's fragile coalition of all the major political parties splintered over the Tribunal, and a new, slightly smaller grouping was formed between parties reluctant to allow the UN-sponsored investigation to proceed unchecked without considering its potentially destabilizing effects on the country.

After five months of posturing, bickering and negotiations, the new government was formed under the leadership of Sunni Prime Minister Najeeb Miqati and work began immediately to present a wide-ranging and mandatory policy statement for a parliamentary vote. Quite inexplicably - unless one is intimately familiar with the bizarre Lebanese fetish for prioritizing regional political battles over critical domestic issues - the STL remained the most contentious issue in the formation of the government's policy overview.

But then a surprise policy statement was presented to lawmakers almost simultaneously with the Tribunal's indictments on Thursday.

According to media sources, the references to the STL in the government's new policy statement remain vague enough to allow Miqati some flexibility to manoever - not satisfying either side of the political equation, but apparently not rocking the boat too much either.

No Evident Fallout
While the Lebanese press went all out on Friday to cover the long-awaited STL indictments and political reactions throughout the country, the mood here appears more fixed on the government's progress than on the Tribunal - a quantum shift from six months ago when it seemed like nothing except an Israeli attack might have distracted the Lebanese populace from gossiping about the investigation and its repercussions.

On Thursday, worst-case-scenarios touted over the Tribunal's indictments fizzled as the local stock market even managed to rise a fraction. The ever-critical influx of summer tourists, which has been fickle of late, suddenly picked up dramatically at the announcement of the government formation two weeks ago.

Even in Sunni strongholds like Tripoli and Sidon - the latter, Hariri's hometown - response was muted and there was no evidence of sectarian strife against the Shiite suspects named by the Tribunal.

Part of this may emanate from a sense that whatever happens, this Tribunal and its ensuing trials will be a drawn out process that may not resolve for years and years. Another reason may be that Hezbollah has spent the past year meticulously spinning their own narrative about this "Whodunnit" and addressing the vulnerabilities and flaws in the STL - preparing the Lebanese public well in advance for these indictments.

But mostly, there is perhaps a stalemate of sorts among a weary population, most of whom have chosen their viewpoint on this affair a long time ago. With electricity blackouts for hours every day, rising food and fuel prices, systemic corruption and decades of government impotence on vital domestic issues, the Lebanese have more important things to worry about.

And the cards held by supporters of the STL are not the same in this new, fast-changing Middle East landscape. Threats of international sanctions or military intervention don't carry much weight post-Libya, where UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China are unlikely to rubberstamp new UNSC initiatives.

Furthermore, the new Lebanese Opposition, consisting mainly of parties wildly supportive of the STL - including the recent Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafiq - will be foolish to harp on this issue when there are so many larger domestic concerns in Lebanon...and a worrisome Syrian revolt just next door. They risk being viewed as a one-issue opposition, over the very thing that brought about the fall of their coalition in January.

When the Tribunal's mandate comes up for renewal in March 2012, it will likely be extended at Washington's insistence. But will the international community, having already spent over $100 million on the Tribunal, continue to foot the bill for the ongoing legal proceedings and investigations, when other priorities beckon and the STL has become highly contentious in the country that counts most, Lebanon?

"Pffft" may not be the best way to describe the reaction to the STL's indictments, but it is the sound reverberating everywhere in this Levantine nation today - the sound of a deflated Tribunal that will need to deliver something compelling to become relevant again as Lebanon focuses elsewhere.

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