Lebanon – Hariri, the Saudis and the Syrian Kiss

(The Daily Star, September 9 2010)

From the Michael Young column:

(…) It was, plainly, Saudi resolve that forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to declare to the Saudi daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat this week that the accusations directed against Syria for the murder of his father, Rafik Hariri, were “political.” More significantly, Hariri affirmed that so-called “false witnesses” were responsible for tensions between Beirut and Damascus. The prime minister knows who killed his father, but that’s of no concern to his political sponsors, who have been squeezing Hariri every which way recently to ease a Syrian return to Lebanon, which Riyadh imagines will help contain Hizbullah.

The phrasing of Hariri’s statement was revealing. After making his remarks about the politicized accusations against Syria, the premier added that the tribunal was continuing its work, lending it some legitimacy. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to dissatisfy Hizbullah. What Hariri did, or tried to do, was to implicitly repeat the Der Spiegel line from last year (which more than ever appears to have been the consequence of Syrian manipulation), namely that Damascus is innocent but that the tribunal is ongoing, therefore its conclusions, even if Hizbullah is named, are worth considering.

Hariri’s calculation was probably to retain some semblance of leverage over Hizbullah. The Syrians, playing both sides of the aisle in order to advance their own interests in Lebanon, have been encouraging their Lebanese megaphones to discredit the tribunal and call for its dissolution, even as they have avoided putting direct pressure on Hariri to end cooperation with the institution. The Syrians are still thinking of using an indictment in ways that expand their power, but they, like Hizbullah, ultimately want the tribunal to be killed from the Lebanese side, so that it won’t harm them.

It is difficult to see how Hariri can come out of this convoluted maneuvering with anything in hand. His comments this week, particularly on the “false witnesses,” were early steps on a slippery slope that can only wreck the tribunal’s effectiveness. The prime minister may want to retain leverage, but his chances of succeeding are diminishing by the day, and the Syrians win either way. What weakens Hariri helps them; what weakens Hizbullah helps them; and a dispute between Hariri and Hizbullah helps them, too. Indeed, today they find themselves indirectly, and agreeably, mediating between the prime minister and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah through Walid Jumblatt, whose reference point in Damascus is Mohammad Nassif, one of the late President Hafez Assad’s closest collaborator. (…)