The UN-authorized investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, now well into a second phase of heightened brinkmanship between Damascus and Washington, also has Lebanon holding its collective breath.

As expected, the first report of German investigator Detlev Mehlis, released on October 21, 2005, did not produce a “smoking gun” proving the involvement of Syrian officials or Lebanese proxies in the February 14 killing of Hariri and 22 others with a one-ton truck bomb in downtown Beirut. Rather, Mehlis wrote that “on the basis of the material and documentary evidence collected, and the leads pursued until now, there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act” and that “it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.” The public version of the report lays out a circumstantial case for these allegations, and cites the claim of a witness who worked for Syrian intelligence that “senior Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate” Hariri in September 2004. A leaked, unedited version of the report names two of these officials as Mahir al-Asad, head of Syria’s Republican Guard and brother of President Bashar al-Asad, and Asef Shawkat, head of Syrian military intelligence and the president’s brother-in-law.

Mehlis has demanded that Shawkat and other current and former high-ranking Syrian officers be made available for questioning before his second report is due on December 15. Facing international pressure to comply, in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 1636, Damascus has pledged to cooperate, while lambasting the first report for relying on hearsay and protesting the requested cession of Syrian sovereignty to a UN-appointed official. In a speech on November 10, Asad predicted: “We will cooperate, but in the end they will say that we did not cooperate.”

Whatever the resolution of Syria’s standoff with Mehlis, politics in Lebanon are paralyzed due to the lack of a resolution of the Hariri killing. From Lebanese politicians, Mehlis’ findings have elicited loud approval and calls to continue the investigation to the end, as well as outraged complaints that the entire process is politicized, a vendetta against Syria by France and the US. Some politicians have advocated both views simultaneously. There is a domestic angle as well: the report does not directly implicate President Emile Lahoud, but four of his security chiefs (and key allies) were arrested in late August under suspicion of having planned the killing. Lahoud, the extension of whose term at Syria’s behest in September 2004 was the backdrop to the political crisis culminating in the Hariri killing, has refused to resign. Due to shifting alliances entangled in the web of apprehension about the Mehlis investigation, his opponents have not yet compelled him to.

Election Reshuffle

The assassination and subsequent Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon happened to precede Lebanese parliamentary elections that had already been scheduled for May and June. The elections were held under roughly the same election law as 2000, when Hariri and his allies scored important victories but failed to win control of Parliament because of a cohort of Syrian-backed deputies. In the 2005 round, the “March 14 opposition,” so named for the date of a million-person demonstration demanding “the truth” about Hariri’s death and an end to Syrian influence in Lebanon, won a slight majority of seats. This alliance was led by Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain premier and heir to his heavily Sunni Future Movement, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, along with Christian MPs from the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, the Lebanese Forces, several mainly Christian groups and the Democratic Left Movement. However, victorious Christian MPs from this camp had what, in the sectarian logic of Lebanon’s confessional system, is seen as a political liability. All of Lebanon’s electoral districts are multi-member; an MP who wins election does so thanks to the votes of the entire district, not just her own sect. The sectarian logic also means that when an MP wins a race without securing at least a plurality of votes from his own sect, he is subject to charges that he lacks legitimacy as a spokesperson for the sect. In opposition, many hailed the March 14 coalition as multi-confessional. In electoral victory, the coalition was widely seen as dominated by Sunni and Druze politicians who had to court the Shiite parties to get business done. Anything dramatic like the fate of the president would require full consensus, namely support from the leading Christian politician whose credentials were not “tainted” by having won his seat on the strength of non-Christian votes.

That person was former general Michel Aoun, who returned to Lebanon in May from 14 years of exile in Paris. Aoun heads the Free Patriotic Movement, which had been one of the main players in the anti-Syrian opposition prior to the withdrawal. He is widely rumored to have cut a deal with Lahoud, and by extension the Syrians, by which he would not demand Lahoud’s resignation when he landed in Beirut. (Aoun denies the charge.) Upon his arrival, Aoun said, “Lebanon has been under a black cloud that enslaved it for 15 years. Today, there is a sun of freedom. I am coming to look to the future and to build Lebanon together.” He did not call upon the president to step down; instead, he castigated Jumblatt and Hariri’s Future Movement for having been willing allies of Syria during most of the period following the 1975-1990 civil war and blamed them for the country’s dire economic situation and problems with corruption. In the election campaign, the ex-general allied with backers of Lahoud. Supported by Christian voters who were angrier at 15 years of Syrian “tutelage” than at Lahoud in particular, Aoun scored strong victories in three districts, claiming a substantial 21-seat bloc and a defeat of rival Christians, including some who had called for a Syrian withdrawal for several years.

The third major electoral force was the Shia alliance of Hizballah and Amal, which retained most of its deputies (around 28 in all), mainly in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. While tacitly or openly running with the Hariri-Jumblatt camp, the Shia alliance also had cordial relations with the Aounists. The very few MPs left were either difficult-to-classify independents or allies of the Syrians. Before the elections, an informal Hariri-Jumblatt-Hizballah-Amal grouping agreed to keep the 2000 electoral law. Afterward, the same alliance of heavily Sunni, Druze and Shiite parties agreed upon major policy parameters, allowing Aoun and Lahoud to cry “imbalance” and claim that Christian politicians had no role in the big decisions. The exit of the pro-Syrian deputies did little to dispel that criticism.

Ironically, the Syrian-managed ruling “troika” system of president, speaker and prime minister was roundly criticized after the war, but when Damascus departed and elections were held, Lebanon ended up with a new troika, consisting of the March 14 coalition, the Hizballah-Amal alliance and the Aoun-Lahoud partnership, with no group able to implement major policy alone.

Summer of Paralysis

Two key issues—the Lebanese presidency and UN Security Council Resolution 1559—highlight the divisions among the new troika, which have derailed any full consensus in support of the Mehlis investigation. The Shiite parties have not called upon Lahoud to step down and they await the other groups’ positions on the presidency, since they do not seek to force a candidate on the country’s Christians. Aoun has offered himself as a candidate but for now lacks the support of the Shia, as he spent most of the summer demanding that Hizballah’s Islamic Resistance disarm in line with UNSC 1559. Aoun has announced his opposition to seeing Lahoud forced out of office by “the street” and rejects a parliamentary vote to end his term, particularly in the absence of Christian consensus upon a successor. Aoun is closest to the line of Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir: no Christian president should be ousted by a bloc that is not Christian-led. The patriarch believes that after Hariri won elections thanks to Sunni voters, and Amal head Nabih Berri was reelected as speaker of Parliament on the strength of a Shiite alliance, why shouldn’t Christian Lebanese be able to choose their president? Allowing Jumblatt and Hariri to bring down Lahoud is unacceptable in this argument, which for now carries the day. Sfeir has little incentive to change his stance before 2007, when the presidential term ends, unless Lahoud is directly implicated in the Hariri killing or commits a huge political blunder, or unless Christian politicians agree on a consensus presidential candidate. The March 14 coalition, meanwhile, is split on the presidency. Jumblatt and Hariri want Lahoud’s term to end immediately but have not agreed on a candidate; their Christian allies might want to run as well.

Meanwhile, the Mehlis investigation is coinciding with pressure on Lebanon to implement UNSC 1559. The report cites the September 2004 resolution as a possible motive for Hariri’s assassination, the argument being that Syria probably believed their former protégé either inspired the resolution’s wording or lobbied for its adoption or both. The first part of 1559 was achieved with the Syrian withdrawal. The second demands the disarming of all militias—a reference to Hizballah and the Palestinian factions in the refugee camps. Here, Washington and Beirut appear to be stalemated. The March 14 coalition believes that disarmament should be addressed through domestic dialogue. Aoun has only recently backed off from his earlier support for implementing 1559 by integrating Hizballah fighters into the Lebanese Army; he now also supports dialogue. The Shia, obviously, reject disarmament but don’t mind talking, as long as the Islamic Resistance is not surrendered to Washington and Paris. Hizballah has its own report issue with the UN: several days after Mehlis filed, UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen decried the lack of “tangible results” in disarming the militias, noting that it is “contradictory” that Hizballah keeps its arms and serves in the Lebanese cabinet at the same time. Hizballah condemned Larsen’s report as flagrant intervention in Lebanese domestic affairs.

Because some Lebanese fear that a military attempt to eliminate the Islamic Resistance could spark sectarian conflict, whether between the Shia and the Sunnis, or pitting the Shia against the rest of the country, the UN pressure is divisive. Mehlis’ investigation also divides Lebanese when it comes to the Security Council’s motivations and the tools used to force Syria’s cooperation.

The Trouble with Mehlis

Future investigations are constrained by different caveats set down by the members of the new troika. The March 14 coalition supports learning “the truth.” However, Jumblatt, followed by Hariri, has publicly objected to seeing UN sanctions used to punish the Syrian people, with Iraq’s experience in the 1990s foremost in many minds. “If there must be sanctions on the Syrian people, let them be limited to only those who are suspects in or responsible for the assassination,” Jumblatt said after Mehlis’ report was released. The Aounists support the investigation, but their overriding goal is to see the ex-general succeed Lahoud, himself a former commander of the Lebanese Army. For now, Aoun is deflecting hints that his former subordinate may be implicated in the assassination. The Mehlis report mentioned a telephone call from a suspect to Lahoud’s mobile phone, about which Aoun remarked, “What was the topic of the call? Anyone can receive a call from a criminal.” Meanwhile, Hizballah and Amal reject sanctions against Syria with the March 14 camp, but also maintain that UNSC 1595, which authorized the Hariri investigation, as well as UNSC 1636, represent “a campaign of pressure by the US and Israel” against Syria.

The post-election government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Hariri’s childhood friend, confidant and finance minister, has been promised an international donors’ conference, perhaps as a quid pro quo for launching economic reforms and disarming Hizballah. The Lebanese system, with its strong president and prime minister, is similar to France’s. When “cohabitation” fails, the government’s work suffers. Such was the case in Beirut from the early summer of 2005 onward, as Lahoud and Siniora agreed on little with the investigation hanging over Lebanon. The political class’ paralysis as it waited for developments with Syria to become clear coincided with a tepid official response to the country’s economic freefall. Although tourists continued to come despite a string of unsolved bombings that have targeted Christian neighborhoods and towns, the economic growth of 5 percent in 2004 might drop to nothing this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The government’s ability to ensure that an international economic conference of “support” does not produce unpopular political or economic dictates for Lebanon remains a question mark. Lurking in the background are the wider implications of Mehlis’ work. His team has delved into the financial side of the Syrian “presence” in Lebanon, particularly in the postwar era. Those familiar with the investigation indicate that a significant number of corruption and other cases can be opened and distributed to willing Lebanese judges, to proceed with their own investigations. Where these efforts could lead, particularly if current politicians are implicated, presents a problem for some members of Lebanon’s political class.

Bilateral Issues

In the absence of serious policymaking while awaiting Mehlis’ report and its consequences, key bilateral matters were put on hold. The Asad regime and the Siniora government have frosty relations and neither has taken the initiative to spell out a post-withdrawal relationship, constrained by the investigation hanging over their heads.

The lowlight of the summer was the spectacle of dozens of trucks held up for weeks, in the sun and heat, on the Lebanese-Syrian border, wrecking business for Lebanese exporters and others. Syria’s justification was that security checks were needed to clamp down on the smuggling of weapons from Lebanon, which took it as a sign of Damascus’ displeasure with its former satellite. Siniora’s official visit to Damascus produced an agreement allowing the trucks through, but this was followed by Syrian customs officials’ seizing goods carried by people traveling to Syria. The Syrians have increased the exit fee paid by its nationals to enter Lebanon from 200 lira to a hefty 800 (the equivalent of $16), demanded that Lebanese residents of Syria have proper residency and work permits (a practice long ignored for Syrian workers in Lebanon), and stopped allowing Lebanese to pay for hotels in Syria in local currency, demanding hard currency as they do from all foreigners. The two countries’ borders are porous and both sides complain about weapons being smuggled across them in both directions. A complete demarcation is another thorny issue, and not just in the Shebaa Farms, the strip of land along the Lebanese border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Syria and Lebanon reject the UN-Israeli position that the farms are in Syrian territory, and Hizballah mounts episodic attacks on Israeli outposts in the farms on the grounds that this is Lebanese territory yet to be liberated.

The bilateral conundrum is highlighted by the past and future of the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council and the 1991 treaty of “brotherhood, coordination and cooperation” governing the countries’ economic and military relations. While Lebanese opponents of the Syrian presence have long called for revising the document, its various components grant Lebanon a number of economic advantages that could be lost in renegotiation.

The Trouble Next Door

Along with a thousand other rumors, expectations of either a blockbuster report by Mehlis or a big dud swirled in Lebanon for months, with the result falling somewhere in the middle: accusations that require more investigation before formal charges are issued and a court convened. Although the report “settled” the issue that Israel or a lone fundamentalist bomber was almost certainly not responsible for the killing of Rafiq al-Hariri, it signaled that resolving the assassination would probably take considerably longer than the time needed to produce the report. The investigation is generating various bones of contention, such as the site of interrogations of Syrian officials, the composition and location of a court if indictments are issued, and the appeals process. In calling for “justice, not revenge,” Saad al-Hariri loudly rejected any compromise in the matter, probably a response to popular speculation that a deal might be struck over the investigation between Washington and Syria, in return for the Syrians’ helping the US in Iraq.

In addition to the issues of Lahoud and UNSC 1559, there is the worrisome question of whether the US ultimately wants to see regime change in Syria or merely, as it publicly states, a “change of behavior.” Some Lebanese quietly voice concerns that their country will never have secure relations with Syria as long as that country is ruled by a dictatorship, implying approval of some type of regime change. But there is no appealing alternative to Asad, and the example of Iraq is another deterrent to this sort of talk.

Syria’s paradigm for the coming months, according to Asad’s November 10 speech, is the post-1982 Israeli invasion phase, when Damascus managed to scuttle the May 17, 1983 peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel, thanks to its Lebanese allies. It remains to be seen whether, after the withdrawal of its army, Damascus can still forge a cohesive coalition of Lebanese actors to affect the Lebanese state’s decisions or even, as some Lebanese newspapers allege, change the government’s composition.

In the meantime, the atmosphere is tense. The killings of writer Samir Kassir and ex-Communist Party head George Hawi and the attempt on the life of TV announcer May Chidiac are viewed by many Lebanese as of a piece with Hariri’s assassination and the earlier attempt to kill Hariri’s supporter Marwan Hamadeh. All were vocal critics of Syrian interference in Lebanon. For much of the summer, political figures associated with the “independence uprising” of the spring, including Hariri’s son Saad, shuttled between various European and Arab countries or practically confined themselves to their residences in Lebanon. Cracks in the government are showing up. In his speech, Asad accused Lebanon of being a “corridor and a factory and a funder” of plots against Syria, and referred to Siniora as a “slave of a slave,” a reference to Hariri and his foreign backing. Hizballah and Amal ministers walked out of a cabinet meeting convened to condemn Asad’s remarks, with Hizballah’s Naim Qasim saying: “We guarantee President Asad that we will not allow Lebanon to become a bridgehead for imperialism.”

With both the fate and the behavior of the Syrian regime uncertain, the strategic issues of Lebanon’s politics are on hold as the country waits for a winner to emerge in the confrontation between Washington and Damascus, as well as the findings of the German detective.

How to cite this article:

Marlin Dick "The Mehlis Report and Lebanon’s Trouble Next Door," Middle East Report Online, November 17, 2005.

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