Syria, Iran Threaten West's Allies in Lebanon

By Riad Kahwahi

Lebanon is once again going through a highly-tense period of uncertainty as a result of what appears to be a well-coordinated Syrian-Iranian offensive to torpedo the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, regarded by many observers as the strongest diplomatic leverage Washington has against Damascus and its strategic ally, Tehran. Senior members of the U.S.-backed Lebanese political bloc known as March 14 Forces, feel strong frustration and vulnerability as they see their regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, stand helpless in front of a multi-front onslaught by Syria and Iran and their allies in Lebanon led by Hizbullah. Efforts by Riyadh to make up with Damascus and improve relations between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Syrian regime seem to have fell short of target and subsequently weakened Hariri and his political bloc.

Tension started to rise in Beirut a few weeks ago when press reports spoke about the intentions of the international tribunal to issue indictments against members of Hizbullah charging them with the killing of Hariri. Although the chief of the international investigators and the tribunal have denied making any such statements to the media, Hizbullah leaders took the media hints very seriously and regarded them as part of U.S. and Israeli led moves to undermine the group and destroy it as a national resistance movement in Lebanon. Hizbullah has given Hariri and the Lebanese government an ultimatum to severe all official ties between the Lebanese State and the international tribunal (including suspension of funds) and to discredit the tribunal by calling it a "politicized entity." Otherwise, Hizbullah and its allies in the so-called March 8 Forces would take a series of undisclosed measures that would lead to the toppling of the Hariri government. Many analysts and officials have warned that moves by Hizbullah and its allies to topple the government could either lead to open-ended political turmoil or even spark a civil war, especially between Hariri's predominantly Sunni Muslim supporters and the powerful Shiite armed group, Hizbullah.

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Hizbullah and Syria's allies in Lebanon also want Hariri and his cabinet to apprehend and put on trial the so-called "false witnesses," a reference to witnesses who had allegedly accused Syria and some of its allies in the 2005 assassination of Hariri which led to the arrest and imprisonment of four senior Lebanese security officials closely allied with Damascus. The four officers were released earlier this year after the tribunal ruled the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence to justify keeping them in custody. Earlier reports from the international investigators in 2005-2008 blamed the Syrian regime for the assassination of Hariri. Late last month and in a move that surprised his closest allies, Prime Minister Hariri admitted that some individuals had submitted false testimony that implicated Syria in the assassination of his father and said Damascus was not politically responsible for his father's murder. Some well-informed sources inside March 14 Forces said Hariri made this statement at the advice of Saudi Arabia in the hope of solidifying relations that were beginning to improve between Hariri and Syrian leadership. However the results through the reaction of Damascus and its allies "were very disappointing to Saudi Arabia as well as its allies in Lebanon, regionally and internationally," a senior Lebanese official said.

Leaders and supporters of the March 14 Forces find themselves today in a very tough position and worried about the future. They feel their international allies have failed them. For one, the international tribunal's image and reputation is in doubt today. For four years the Syrian regime was presented as the prime suspect in Hariri's assassination. However, after French-led efforts to end Syria's isolation imposed (between 2004-2008) by the U.S. Administration of George W. Bush, talk about Damascus' responsibility of the murder halted, Syria's isolation ended and accusations shifted towards Hizbullah, which is Iran's strongest ally in the Arab world. Many analysts believe the West was trying to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran through such moves. However, the visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad to Tehran on October 1, 2010, and what emerged during and after his meetings there revealed that Damascus-Tehran ties were stronger than what many had expected and both were still on the same course against the U.S. and its allies in the region. Both seem to be coordinating their moves very well on many fronts: Lebanon, Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and other places and issues.

The March 14 Forces leadership wants the international tribunal to announce indictments and charges as soon as possible and regard the repeated delays and postponement to such an action to be harmful for Lebanon and to its standing and future as a political bloc. Some of these leaders even wonder whether the international investigators do have any tangible evidence against anybody at all. They fear that the international tribunal was set up to be used not to just achieve justice, but also to serve political ends to the super powers like the United States and the West, in their ongoing diplomatic showdown with Iran and its allies, including Syria. Some of these leaders believe the growing conflict between Hizbullah and the Hariri government over the tribunal was aggravating the growing Sunni-Shiite divide in the region, and subsequently turning Arab public opinion against Tehran, which would make it easier for Israel and U.S. to pursue the military option against Iran and its allies if need be.

The worst nightmare for the March 14 Forces is to eventually see weak or inconclusive evidence against any suspect in the long-anticipated charges of the tribunal's prosecutor, because finding the truth as to who killed Hariri and other politicians since 2005 and bringing about justice have been the main pillars for the political movement that had forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon five years ago after a 29-year presence. Failure of the international tribunal would very likely politically kill and bury the "Cedar Revolution" and those behind it. As for now the political dynamic in Lebanon, especially with some March 14 Forces members abandoning the bloc to join the opposition, could eventually force Hariri to suspend funding the tribunal, but without denouncing the court that was set up by the United Nations Security Council under Chapter 7. Other countries could cover Lebanon's share in financing the tribunal, and hence keep it going. The ball would then be on the side of the international community, especially the United States and the West, in determining the fate of the tribunal and most likely the future of Lebanon and the region. So far, Syria and Iran have been one step or several steps ahead of the U.S. and its allies. Will this status change anytime soon? So far, the facts indicate that a new order is emerging in the region and it is not in favor of the U.S. and its allies. As for Lebanon, the countdown is underway and not much time is left.

Riad Kahwahi is CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis.

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