Background: Who Was Rafik Hariri?
Hariri was Lebanon’s prime minister at the time. He had negotiated the end of the Lebanese civil war 15 years earlier. A banking, real estate, media and insurance magnate, he had overseen the rebuilding of Beirut, albeit at immense cost to the national debt and immense profit to himself.
Still, corruption being virtually every Lebanese politician’s credential, Hariri was respected by most factions in Lebanon—a notoriously fractious country—and beloved by some, his Sunni Muslim followers especially.
Syria’s Role in the Assassination
Blame for the assassination immediately veered toward Syria, for good reason: Once a Syrian ally, Hariri had turned against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, which was in its 29th year in 2005. An investigation by the United Nations’ Detlev Mehlis implicated several Syrian officials in a draft report. Names were removed from the final report when it was published in October 2005, but the report’s conclusions were categorical:
[T]here is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act. It is a well known fact that Syrian Military Intelligence had a pervasive presence in Lebanon at the least until the withdrawal of the Syrian forces pursuant to resolution 1559. The former senior security officials of Lebanon were their appointees. Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.
The report recommended establishing a tribunal to investigate not only the Hariri assassination, but assassinations that preceded it and followed it, “since there could be links between some, if not all, of them.” The United Nations Security Council voted in May 2007 to establish just such a tribunal.
The tribunal convened for the first time on March 1, 2009, at The Hague in the Netherlands.
As of March 2009, no indictments had been issued. But Lebanese authorities held four generals detained in connection with the assassination, all of them Lebanese: Ex-security chiefs Mustafa Hamdan, Jamil al-Sayed, Ali al-Hage, and Raymond Azar.
Daniel Bellamare, the prosecutor in the case, told the Lebanese in an open letter that “we will go wherever the evidence leads us.” But he cast doubt on the effectiveness of both the Mehlis report as an investigative tool, and on his own predecessor, Serge Brammertz, as a prosecutor.
A Long Process
It could be years before the tribunal concludes its work. Lebanon is cooperating. It is likely to hand over the four generals if indictments are issued. Syria says that it is cooperating. In fact, Syrian cooperation has been more theater than action, and Syria is unlikely to turn over individuals to The Hague.
The tribunal is supposed to be above politics. Whether it stays there is op[en to question, especially as the United States attempts to break a diplomatic logjam with Syria.
Political Implications and Lebanon's Fate
Should the United States find Syrian cooperation necessary in diplomatic forays either in the Arab-Israeli conflict or regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is unlikely that Lebanon’s interests would be allowed to stand in the way.
As in 1990, when the United States tacitly acquiesced to almost complete Syrian control of Lebanon in exchange for Syria’s agreeing to joining the coalition against Iraq in Operation Desert Shield, most Lebanese fear that the Hariri tribunal could potentially fall prey to strategic machinations beyond Lebanon’s control.