Hezbollah Indictments, Syrian Unrest Shake Lebanon

Jul 14, 2011
Originally published on July 18, 2011 1:29 pm

The Arab Spring has largely bypassed Lebanon, but the new government may still be in jeopardy.

Growing unrest next door in Syria is seen as an imminent danger. It doesn't help that a key player in the new government is Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and party backed by the increasingly unpopular regime in Damascus. Nor does it help that four Hezbollah members are accused in the killing of a former Lebanese prime minister — a charge Hezbollah denies.

By the time a United Nations special tribunal issued indictments implicating Hezbollah in the 2005 car bomb that killed Rafik al-Hariri, it was too late for the pro-Western March 14 coalition that rose to power after the assassination. Hezbollah and its allies were in power and the cries for justice were echoing from Parliament's back benches.

But the rise of Hezbollah, whose militia is considered the strongest force in the country, is clouded by the indictments — although it has gone to great lengths to discredit the tribunal.

Mounting Tension

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lashed out, calling the tribunal a tool of Israeli and American intelligence agencies. Highly produced and heavily edited videos have appeared, alleging links between the tribunal's staff and the CIA, among other things.

Tribunal officials say justice is their primary concern, wherever the evidence leads. Nasrallah vows that the indicted men will never be arrested. A pro-opposition news agency reported that all four had left the country. And, in an apparent sign that the tribunal is considering that prospect, it has asked Interpol to distribute information about the four to member-country law enforcement agencies.

As the tension mounts, the attacks on the tribunal's integrity have begun to affect local opinion.

On Beirut's sunny seafront, juice vendor Abu Ali squeezes oranges for a customer and grumbles about the dearth of tourists this season. The stocky 63-year-old says many Lebanese want the army to be the strongest military force in Lebanon, not Hezbollah's militia. But he thinks that by going after Hezbollah, the tribunal has displayed a double standard.

"If the tribunal wants justice, the first one it should judge is Israel," he says. "After that, we'd be behind them, whoever they accuse."

Syria's Shadow

Having managed to pull a government together, Prime Minister Najib Mikati is trying to finesse the situation, promising cooperation with the tribunal but avoiding a confrontation with Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, analysts say, the drama that could shake up Lebanon well before anything the tribunal might do is playing out next door.

"Lebanon has lived in the shadow of a very strong Syria for the last 40 years," says Paul Salem at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East office, "and now Syria has entered a very deep crisis, from which it will not emerge as it was."

Salem says as Hezbollah's patrons in Syria fight for their political survival, Lebanon once again is forced to wait and see how the balance of power shifts.

"A new Syria will emerge. It might emerge as this regime very transformed, or the regime might fall, to be replaced by a completely opposite type of regime," he says. "In all cases, Lebanon's politics will be decisively impacted by what happens in Syria."

For the moment, Lebanese are waiting for news of more indictments from the Hariri tribunal, because few here believe the four Hezbollah members are the only ones under suspicion.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The Middle East now, namely Lebanon, where the country's government may still be in jeopardy even though Arab Spring has largely bypassed that country. Growing unrest next door in Syria is seen as an imminent danger, and it doesn't help that a key player in the new government is Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and party backed by the increasingly unpopular regime in Damascus. Nor does it help that four Hezbollah members are accused in the killing of a former Lebanese prime minister, a charge that Hezbollah denies. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Beirut.

PETER KENYON: By the time a UN special tribunal issued indictments implicating Hezbollah in the 2005 car bomb that killed Rafik al-Hariri, it was too late for the pro-Western March 14th coalition that rose to power after the assassination. Hezbollah and its allies were in power and the cries for justice were echoing from Parliament's back benches.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

KENYON: But the rise of Hezbollah, whose militia is considered the strongest force in the country, is clouded by the indictments - although it has gone to great lengths to discredit the tribunal.

HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lashed out, calling the tribunal a tool of Israeli and American intelligence agencies. Highly produced and heavily edited videos have appeared, alleging links between the tribunal's staff and the CIA, among other things.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: As the tension mounts, the attacks on the tribunal's integrity have begun to affect local opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)

KENYON: On Beirut's sunny seafront, juice vendor Abu Ali squeezes oranges for a customer and grumbles about the dearth of tourists this season. The stocky 63-year-old says many Lebanese want the army to be the strongest military force in Lebanon, not Hezbollah's militia. But he thinks that by going after Hezbollah, the tribunal has displayed a double standard.

ABU ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

TRANSLATOR: If the tribunal wants justice, the first one it should judge is Israel. After that, we'd be behind them, whoever they accuse.

KENYON: Having managed to pull a government together, Prime Minister Najib Mikati is trying to finesse the situation, promising cooperation with the tribunal but avoiding a confrontation with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, analysts say, the drama that could shake up Lebanon well before anything the tribunal might do is playing out next door.

PAUL SALEM: Lebanon has lived in the shadow of a very strong Syria for the last 40 years and now Syria has entered a very deep crisis, from which it will not emerge as it was.

KENYON: Paul Salem at the Carnegie Endowment's Mideast office, says as Hezbollah's patrons in Syria fight for their political survival, Lebanon once again is forced to wait and see how the balance of power shifts.

SALEM: A new Syria will emerge. It might emerge as this regime very transformed, or the regime might fall, to be replaced by a completely opposite type of regime. In all cases, Lebanon's politics will be decisively impacted by what happens in Syria.

KENYON: For the moment, Lebanese are waiting for news of more indictments from the Hariri tribunal, because few here believe that these four Hezbollah members are the only ones under suspicion. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.