Iran’s Foreign Minister in Damascus with a Helping Hand for Assad in Lebanon

On the face of it, the tribunal established by UN Security Council to prosecute suspects in former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri‘s assassination is a triumph for justice and for the US-French drive to rescue Lebanon from Syria’s clutches.

But the devil is in the measure’s fine print.

The Lebanese component of the tribunal could be a serious sticking point.

While a single international judge will serve as the Pre-Trial Judge, one of the three judges serving in the Trial Chamber and two of the five members of the Appeals Chamber must be Lebanese. The other 12 judges will be non-Lebanese, impartial figures.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Beirut sources say it is hard to see how in Lebanon’s overheated sectarian climate, any objective authority can select the three competent Lebanese judges or guarantee their safety and that of their families.

The likely site for the tribunal is Cyprus or The Hague. It is to be set up by June 10.

The resolution was carried by 10 votes on May 30, but Russia, China, Indonesia, Qatar and South Africa abstained, in part out of concern over the invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter which allows for military enforcement if necessary.

They were not convinced by the argument of the measure’s British co-sponsor that “the adoption of the text under Chapter VII carries no connotation other than making it binding.”

They are also troubled that the plan, requested by the Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, was not ratified by the Lebanese parliament, simply because the pro-Syrian Speaker Nabih Berri refused to convene the chamber. They therefore see the tribunal as a measure that will further divide Lebanon.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources add that, even if the international tribunal begins functioning, it is hard to see how the parties which engineered the massive truck bomb explosion, which killed Hariri and 22 others, can be physically brought to justice. This goes doubly for the members of Syrian president Bashar Assad’s close relatives and the intelligence officers who are the pillars of his regime and are heavily suspected of a hand in the murders.


Lebanon army gives into Islamists in Tripoli camp


Popular outrage over the assassination forced Syria to end its 20-year old grip on Lebanon in 2005. Since then, the United States and Europe have invested hugely in stabilizing the fragile pro-Western government and keeping Syria’s deadly hand from tipping the country into chaos. While Hariri’s son Saad Hariri led the celebrations in Beirut Wednesday night, fear in Beirut of a fresh descent into civil war was palpable.

Ill omens were in place, planted there by Damascus, well in advance of the UN resolution:

1. Tuesday, May 29, Lebanese security picked up in Beirut a Saudi Arabian suspected of acting as a double agent for Syria and al Qaeda and serving as a communications link between Syrian military intelligence and the Fatah al Islam fighting the Lebanese army over control of the Nahar al Bared refugee camp near Tripoli.

(More about this in HOT POINTS below).

2. On the same day, the Lebanese army climbed down from its 72-hour ultimatum to the Islamists: if they failed to surrender and hand in their arms, the troops would storm the camp.. A US airlift of weapons was run to Beirut with UAE and Jordan assistance to help the Lebanese troops seize control of the camp and quell the uprising. But instead, they backed off, letting the 350-strong radical group and their Syrian and al Qaeda sponsors win the day.

3. Scant hours before the UN resolution was passed, Beirut’s international airport was placed on high alert by a tip from a Western intelligence agency that a mega-terror attack was impending within days. It was supposed to target the passenger terminal and planes on the runway. Lebanese citizens dancing for joy and shooting fireworks over the tribunal were unaware of the threat.

DEBKA-net-Weekly reports that Syria’s offensive to recover ground in Beirut is in full swing. He is wholeheartedly supported by his ally in Tehran. Thursday night, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki arrived in Damascus for some joint strategic planning of the next steps.


Assad heavily arms friendly Palestinian groups


President Bashar Assad is sure he can get away with fomenting turmoil in Lebanon in defiance of the latest UN resolution, just as he mocked the two UN Security Council resolutions ordering Hizballah and other pro-Syrian militias disarmed. Syria and Tehran simply ignored Resolution 1701 which ended the Lebanon War last August and banned the flow of arms to the Lebanese Shiite group.

Assad has launched operations to destabilize Lebanon on two levels:

On the political level, he is pushing his pawn, Lebanese president Emil Lahoud to replace the government headed by Fouad Siniora with a pro-Damascus administration. Lahoud will have to act before September when his term of office runs out.

The Siniora government already faces a legitimacy crisis after the walkout of six pro-Syrian ministers robbed him of broad national representation. However a pro-Syrian government would lack a parliamentary majority.

Therefore, Lebanon may yet have to endure the political impasse of two rival governments. In no time, its security forces would be divided between rival allegiances, a sure recipe for the next civil war.

On the military level, Damascus has heavily armed friendly Palestinian groups in the camps of Beirut and South Lebanon: Hamas, Jihad Islami, the radical Palestinian Liberation Fronts and the Islamist factions affiliated to al Qaeda, such as Jund al Sham (Army of the Levant) and Uzbat Al Ansar.

Prime minister Siniora was confronted with threats from these Palestinian groups to ignite massive uprisings in all the Palestinian camps in Lebanon if the Lebanese army storms the Nahra el-Bared camp near Tripoli.

The prime minister gave into the threat and ordered the Lebanese army to back away from its ultimatum. Therefore, Lebanon will not be saved by the international tribunal for bringing Hariri’s killers to book, which means that the US-French strategy faces defeat.

The clock cannot be turned back to reverse two major errors:


Mahmoud Abbas lets the side down in Lebanon too


First, the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1701’s ban on the inflow of weapons through Syria to Hizballah and Palestinian militias was never implemented, notwithstanding the beefed up UN observer presence in South Lebanon and offshore.

Second, the Bush administration and French presidents past and present, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, have built their Middle East policies around the ineffectual, dithering Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

When the Lebanese crisis was at its peak, Washington and Siniora appealed to him to rally his Fatah fighters in the Lebanese camps and order them to stand up to the pro-Syrian groups. This appeal reached Abu Mazen at a time when his humming and hawing had led to the Gaza Strip being presented on a platter to Hamas, Jihad Islami and al Qaeda. A few days later, Abbas came back with a typical response: The Americans must give him funds and weapons for a new Palestinian army to police the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, clearly a protracted project with no relevance to the galloping crisis in the present.

Abbas pulled the same maneuver in the Gaza Strip; a couple of years ago, he persuaded the Americans to build him a private army, which never seems to be around when there is any fighting to be done against Hamas.

Our Beirut sources report that the Lebanese prime minister, familiar with Abu Mazen’s delaying tactics, informed Washington that the last thing he needs now is yet another Palestinian militia.

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