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Growing fears of escalation in Lebanon

The UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon has issued arrest warrants for the alleged murderers of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But the militant group Hezbollah says it will not support the court.

statue of rafik hariri

Hariri was assassinated in a suicide bombing in 2005

The Tribunal is a sticking point for the fragile government in Lebanon. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed the four men will never be turned over for trial. The group claims the STL is politically motivated. Rafik Hariri's son Saad and his supporters, on the other hand, accuse Hezbollah of paralyzing Lebanon's political life out of fear of the Tribunal.

Both sides have become increasingly entrenched in their positions. It took months for Prime Minister Najib Mikati to create a government of national unity. He was only able to form a new cabinet in June, in which Hezbollah and its allies have the majority. Saad Hariri and his supporters make up the opposition, which is preparing for a comeback in the parliamentary elections in 2013.

Omar Nashabe, a journalist from the newspaper Al-Akhbar with good ties to Hezbollah, said the group is criticizing the STL's tunnel vision.

"The problem of Hezbollah with this Tribunal is not that it is accusing its members," Nashabe said. Rather, its proceedings are too one-sided, he said.

saad hariri

Saad Hariri's coalition wants firm commitment to the Tribunal

"No one has even made one visit to Israel or even checked the possibility that there may be witnesses," he said. "This is an investigation that is directed in one direction and that is clearly against Hezbollah, Syria and Iran."

Syria's powerful role

Syria and Iran support Hezbollah - financially and with weapons - in the "war" against Israel. Initially, Syria was accused of murdering Hariri.

"Rafik Hariri no longer wanted to carry out Syria's policies and for that, he had to die," said Amin Gemayel, a parliamentarian of the Christian Kataeb party, allied to Saad Hariri's party Al Mustaqbal.

Syria for years determined and controlled the politics of its neighbor. The Lebanese prime minister was unable to go about his business without the approval from Damascus. Directly following Hariri's murder in 2005, mass demonstrations forced Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon. This led to Hezbollah losing a significant protector in the country.

Extradition unlikely

Although the investigation of Hariri's murder is supposedly confidential, it has long since seeped to the public that Hezbollah is being accused of the crime. Cynics say that is due to the fact that no one wants to take on Syria. Confidential information was leaked to the press, including to the German magazine Der Spiegel and the French newspaper Le Monde.

hassan nasrallah

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has pledged his group will not hand over any of the suspects

"That had to have been passed on by insiders at the Tribunal," journalist Nashabe said.

The STL provided Lebanon with the names of four accused on July 8. Their identities were supposed to be confidential. But in Lebanese media, four names have been made public, including Mustafa Badreddine, a senior member of the Hezbollah movement.

Hardly anyone believes the men will be found and extradited to the court in The Netherlands. It's not even clear if they are still in Lebanon or have long gone abroad. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said all four are honorable men and will never be handed over. He accused the Tribunal of being a US-Israeli conspiracy against Hezbollah - as revenge for the war Israel fought against the group in 2006 and lost. Israel's proclaimed goal at the time to destroy Hezbollah failed.

If the accused are not extradited, it could come to a trial in absentia.

"If Lebanon ceases to cooperate with the Tribunal, which Hezbollah would like, that will mainly harm the prosecution, so Hezbollah itself," said Mohamad Chatah, a political advisor to Saad Hariri. After all, Hezbollah could then not prove its innocence, he said.

An unpredictable force

Prime Minister Mikati has clearly said that he fully supports the work of the Tribunal - as long as it doesn't represent any danger for the domestic security of his country. But it looks like the danger is one of escalation.

A poster shows Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah

Assad's ties to Nasrallah are evident on the streets of Damascus

"At the beginning of the year, Hezbollah members marched into Beirut," said Gemayel. And that could happen again. Though the men dressed in black were unarmed, the parliamentarian is certain the group would defend itself against the Tribunal with force of arms. Nashabe agreed.

"Of course, Hezbollah will defend itself with all means," he said. However, he added that he was confident that the situation would remain calm for the time being.

Gemayel is less certain when it comes to developments with Syria.

"I can't rule out that Hezbollah could take action in order to support its ally Syria," he said. Should Bashar al-Assad's regime actually fall, it could even be the case that Hezbollah try to completely take over the Lebanese government with force.

"Everything is possible," Gemayel said. The weapons are there.

Author: Naomi Conrad / sac
Editor:

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