A case in context: From the Lebanese Civil War to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has just heard the closing arguments in Ayyash et. al, on September 21, 2018; a case in which prosecutors charged four members or associates of Hezbollah with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Thirteen years after the assassination, judges are in the process of making their judgement. In a series of pieces to be published from now until the judges reach a verdict, Atlantic Council resident senior fellow Faysal Itani and non-resident fellow Anthony Elghossain will consider Hariri’s killing, the context around the case, the evolution in the effort to bring the killers to justice, and the politics of the Levant since 2005.

Beirut shook. On February 14, 2005, at about 12:55 p.m., assassins detonated a massive bomb along a road that bent past the St. Georges Hotel towards Beirut’s corniche. In doing so, they killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri and more than twenty other often-forgotten people. And, regardless of their identity and intentions, the assassins drove the Lebanese to call for the Syrian regime to leave Lebanon—and end thirty years of military occupation, political micromanagement, and institutional integration of “one people in two states.”

A billionaire from the Lebanese city of Sidon, Hariri made his fortune while running a construction company in the Arab Gulf states. He first stepped onto the stage in the 1980s. Sponsoring or organizing efforts to remove rubble in between bouts of fighting in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Hariri also worked as an intermediary between Lebanese factions, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. And he later helped cajole Lebanese legislators into accepting the Ta’if Accord—a peace deal and quasi-constitutional arrangement that provided a foundation for peace.

But peace had a price: Syrian hegemony. The Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies disarmed most militias (except Hezbollah’s), but failed to broaden political legitimacy, drive economic growth, or encourage expatriate Lebanese to return home. In 1992, after parliamentary elections marred by boycotts and manipulation, the currency collapsed, prices soared, and protestors took to the streets. Lebanon’s first postwar premier resigned. Fearing another Lebanese collapse, the Syrians invited Hariri to form a government.

In the 1990s, Syria ran Lebanon’s security, intelligence, and foreign policy, positioning itself as ultimate arbiter in the occupation. (The Israelis occupied South Lebanon, where they’d been since invading in 1982 to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization.) Under Syrian supervision, Lebanese leaders “split” what was left of their state. Hariri and his team ran reconstruction, stabilized a collapsing currency, and tried to revitalize the economy. Others—such as Lebanese Armed Forces commander Emile Lahoud, or General Security Service chief Jamil Sayyed—carved out roles in an emerging Syrian-shaped security state.

In 1998, the Syrian regime orchestrated Lahoud’s election as Lebanese president. Lahoud had spent the 1990s reordering the Lebanese Armed Forces to disrupt secular statist and Christian nationalist networks opposed to Syria. Hariri and Lahoud clashed immediately, intensely, incessantly. They were different men, from different backgrounds, with different approaches to politics—to say nothing of their very different visions for Lebanon. They differed on everything from reconstruction, the state’s structure, economics, inter-communal relations, and their places in the political hierarchy.

From the beginning Syrian President Hafez Assad had carefully calibrated Syria’s supervision of Lebanese politics without relying excessively on one faction, but by this point his son Bashar was playing a deepening role. Bashar then bet Syrian interests on Lahoud and used him to weaken Hariri, who resigned in frustration only weeks after Lahoud took office in 1998.

In 2000, Lebanon began to reemerge. Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in May 2000, which raised questions about why the Syrians still continued their own occupation on Lebanon. Then, the elder Assad died in June 2000. The ultimate architect of, and arbiter within, a delicate system supporting occupation was now gone. Bashar promptly assumed power in Syria, slowly bringing his own faction to power while still sharing space with his father’s friends in the regime, Baath Party, and Syrian state.

Two months later, Hariri bulldozed through Beirut in parliamentary elections. In sweeping the city, Hariri defeated a coalition of Syrian-supported people and parties and thus set the stage for his return to government—albeit within a state still dominated, and pursuant to rules dictated, by Damascus.

At this point, however, some Lebanese leaders had begun clamoring for greater independence from Syria. In September 2000, the Maronite Patriarch and Council of Bishops called for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt later did the same. Meanwhile Hariri again clashed with Lahoud and other officials of the Syrian-sponsored security state who continued their practices of beating, jailing, disappearing, and killing anti-Syrian activists.

In the early 2000s, American, European, and Arab officials still acquiesced to the Syrian “solution” in Lebanon. But they increasingly began to bypass the Syrians to deal directly with other Lebanese leaders, particularly Hariri. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, US-Syrian relations quickly declined as Secretary of State Colin Powell and others demanded that the Syrian regime stop channeling terrorists into Iraq, facilitating arms transfers to Hezbollah, and supporting Iran in its bid to upend an American-backed regional order.

As international leaders increased their pressure on Syria, and as Lebanese leaders again tried to “internationalize” their politics, the Syrian regime tightened its grip on Lebanon. In 2003, they took aim at Lebanese leaders. They blocked Hariri from forming a cabinet, restricted the authority of Hariri-connected agencies in the Lebanese state, and shut down government investigations into a bank facilitating their business in Beirut. Unknown assailants then fired rockets into the offices of Future TV, a television station owned by the Hariri family. Hariri protested these measures. Lebanese leaders called for the Syrian regime to reconsider its role in Beirut. International statespersons again squeezed the Syrians.

In the autumn of 2003, the Bush administration and US Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Restoration of Lebanese Sovereignty Act. Warning the Syrians to refrain from extending Lahoud’s term and urging them to begin restoring Lebanese sovereignty, they threatened to adopt sanctions against Syria if the regime didn’t alter its behavior in Lebanon. For about a year, Lebanese leaders tried to convince Syrian leaders to drop Lahoud—and alter their increasingly heavy-handed approach. They worked with intermediaries in the Syrian regime, sent signals to foreign leaders, and made public proclamations. American and European officials worked to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1559—institutionalizing a new anti-Syrian policy.

About a month later, on October 1, 2004, assassins tried and failed to kill Marwan Hamade, a MP and recently-resigned economy minister close to Druze leader Jumblatt. Hamade had opposed Syrian plans to extend Lahoud’s presidency past the end of its term later that year. Facing the prospect of still more years of frustration by Lahoud and his sponsors, Hariri resigned again. While he didn’t formally join the opposition, he had stopped supporting the Syrian-sponsored political status quo. He made plans to run in the parliamentary elections of 2005—perhaps hoping to repeat the landslide victory of 2000. Hariri met with French President Jacques Chirac and the Saudi royals and began building ties with Lebanese leaders who could, conceivably, promote and participate in a post-occupation order.

Then he was killed.

Hundreds of thousands attended Hariri’s funeral amid protests against his killing. After that, tens of thousands demonstrated every Monday until Lebanese premier Omar Karame resigned. Bashar Assad blasted the protestors in a speech to the Syrian parliament, urging news organizations to “zoom out” when covering the demonstrations (presumably, to expose them as insignificant). On March 8, 2005, hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah’s supporters marched to thank rather than criticize Syria for its role in Lebanon. This merely triggered an even larger counter-demonstration. On March 14, 2005 more than a million Lebanese took to Beirut’s streets and squares to call for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. About a month later under international pressure, Syria ended its thirty-year-long occupation of Lebanon. In parliamentary elections, a coalition led by Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad, and Jumblatt secured an outright majority in parliament. Lahoud remained president however, and the informal mechanisms of power available to Hezbollah, Lebanese security services, and Syrian operatives were intact.

Against a political backdrop painted with demands for “freedom, sovereignty, and independence,” Lebanese leaders and their international statespersons also sought “truth, justice, and accountability.” Indeed, they did so immediately.

The day after Hariri’s assassination, the UN Security Council condemned  the killers and urged Lebanese authorities to “bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of this heinous terrorist act.” As Lebanese took to the streets and as their leaders demanded an international investigation into the killing, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut. The mission’s members met with Lebanese officials and politicians; examined the blast site, collected evidence, and interviewed witnesses; and assessed the activities of security services, judicial institutions, and others amid “accusations and counter-accusations.” In his report on initial findings and recommending an independent international investigation, the mission leader noted nine specific “shortcomings” indicating negligence, mismanagement, or worse. Alluding to the broader responsibility of Lebanese and Syrian security services for conditions in Lebanon, he recommended that the UN institutionalize an independent international investigation.

The UN Security Council then adopted Resolution 1595. It created the UN International Independent Investigation Commission to gather evidence, otherwise assist investigators, and determine whether prosecution of the perpetrators was appropriate and feasible. Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor who developed his reputation investigating the La Belle discotheque bombing in Berlin, served as the commissioner. In his report, Mehlis essentially implicated leaders of the Syrian regime in Hariri’s killing. In August 2005, based on a recommendation from the commission and warrants from the Lebanese prosecutor-general, authorities arrested four of the men who had run the Lebanese security services of the Syrian-Lebanese apparatus before Hariri’s assassination.

From 2005 to 2013, assassins targeted more than a dozen people who had opposed the occupation; organized the Cedar Revolution; or worked to establish, empower, and otherwise engage the investigation into Hariri’s killing. The victims included the Syrian-Palestinian writer Samir Kassir; Lebanese Communist Party chief George Hawi; Gebran Tueni, a Lebanese MP and editor of the An-Nahar daily; Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese MP and eldest son of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel; Walid Eido, a Lebanese MP with the Future Movement; Antoine Ghanem, a Lebanese MP affiliated with the Gemayel-led Phalange Party; Lebanese Armed Forces Brigadier General Francois Hajj, presumptively the next commander of the military; and Internal Security Forces Captain Wissam Eid, who played a pivotal part in the Hariri investigation itself.

The assassins slowed, but did not stop, the creation of a tribunal to try Hariri’s assassins. In May 2007, the Lebanese prime minister confirmed that domestic efforts to ratify an agreement had “reached a dead end.” He then requested, “as a matter of urgency,” that the UN Security Council “put into effect” a tribunal for the Hariri assassination and connected crimes. In Resolution 1757, the UN Security Council essentially created the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) pursuant to its authorities under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In the ensuing months, based on reports submitted by international and Lebanese, the UN Security Council decided to base the STL in the Netherlands and allow it to begin working as of March 1, 2009.

Assassins took Hariri’s life in an instant. The Lebanese, galvanized by yet another assassination, demonstrated for a month—and, with international support, ended a decades-long occupation. It took another four years, marked by constitutional crises, political paralysis, and violence, merely to create the STL—through a Chapter VII resolution, no less. It will take much longer to end the culture of impunity for assassins, and others who use violence as a tool of routine politics, in the Levant. For now, however, the STL is Lebanon’s only potential vehicle for justice, and the court’s judges are months away from another pivotal moment in the Hariri story: a verdict.

Faysal Itani is a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him @faysalitani.
Anthony Elghossain is a non-resident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and a lawyer and writer based in Beirut, where he promotes the rule of law in the Middle East and Africa. Follow him @aelghossain.

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Image: Photo: A plate for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is pictured during the trial of Lebanon's Rafik al-Hariri alleged killers in the Hague, the Netherlands September 11, 2018. Bas Czerwinski/Pool via REUTERS