LEBANON: Faceoff over Hariri tribunal could drag country into new conflict
Murder! Blackmail! Conspiracy!
Things are getting nasty in Lebanon as Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his followers show no signs of buckling under pressure from Hezbollah to withdraw support for the U.N.-backed tribunal set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The tribunal has been a polarizing factor in Lebanese politics since it began. Hezbollah and its allies are fighting to discredit it amid rumors that some members of the Shiite group will be indicted. Hezbollah maintains that several key witnesses gave false reports to mislead the investigation, a claim that has been backed by the Lebanese judiciary and Hariri himself.
Earlier this month, it appeared that Hariri was giving ground when he admitted that early accusations against Syria were "politically motivated," all but exonerating Damascus and angering many of his followers in Lebanon.
But apparently that wasn't enough, and now Syria's allies in Lebanon are going after Hariri again and pulling no punches.
"Hariri has capitulated for Syria, and now they want him to capitulate for Hezbollah," said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at American University of Beirut.
On Sept. 12, just days after visiting Syrian President Bashar Assad, former Lebanese security chief Brig. Gen. Jamil Sayyed launched a blistering attack on Hariri, calling for him to take a lie detector test to determine whether he had paid witnesses to give false testimony against Sayyed. Sayyed was imprisoned for four years in connection with Rafik Hariri's murder, but he was released last year for lack of evidence.
The Lebanese state prosecutor, Said Mirza, hit back, issuing a summons to investigate Sayyed for threatening Hariri and state institutions. That's when Hezbollah stepped in to defend Sayyed, warning that it would "cut off the unjust hand" that threatened the general. The group even sent an armed escort to pick up Sayyed from the airport on Saturday, a move that sparked an outcry from Hariri's faction that Hezbollah had staged an armed takeover of the airport.
Given Hariri's apparent rapprochement with Syria, many observers were surprised at the ferocity of the general's attack, which came just three days after Sayyed visited Assad.
"Everyone makes sure they get the approval of their sponsors," Khashan said.
"The door for concessions has been opened, and the Syrians are trying to do a service to Hezbollah and Jamil Sayyed," he said. "Hezbollah believes that the fate of the tribunal is in the hands of Hariri. ... They think it's enough for Hariri to cease cooperation with it for it to become defunct."
On Tuesday, Hariri's camp responded to Sayyed's accusations by accusing him of attempting to blackmail Hariri for $7.5 million in exchange for dropping the charges that Hariri paid off witnesses.
Hezbollah lawmaker Nawwaf Mousawi told local TV that same day that the current tension is "due to the targeting of the resistance via the special tribunal for Lebanon."
The next move belongs to Hariri's government. If authorities move to arrest Sayyed, Hezbollah may take action that could plunge the country into a new stage of crisis.
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Jamil Sayyed. Credit: Anwar Amro /AFP