Elections, Lebanon, March 14, Syria

The Tribunal is Dead! Long Live the Tribunal!


As I waited in line for my zaatar man’oushe this morning, a passerby waved to Ali, the baker, and wished him a good morning.

“What’s so good about it?” Ali muttered back, staring down at his bucket of chopped tomatoes.

The supporters of March 14th are not loving life today, despite Saad al-Hariri’s efforts to spin the news of the four generals’ release as a confirmation of the tribunal’s transparency. The political talk shows last night were the scene of undisguised schadenfreude by opposition figures from Wi’am Wahhab to Michel Samaha to Sleiman Frangieh, who twisted the knife by feigning sympathy for the Hariri family, and vowing to continue the fight for “real” justice.

From interview to interview, channel to channel, the exquisite blend of platitudes and recriminations was too similar to be a deliberately orchestrated cross-coalition messaging strategy.  It was simply pure instinct.

There are three prisms through which to read this development.

1. The fate of the Special Tribunal and the Hariri investigation

As The Daily Star‘s editorial notes today, “the decision to release the four does not represent the entire judicial process of the Special Tribunal; it’s not even the indictment. We do not and will not know anything about the truth, or lack thereof, of accusations made against any side before the indictments are issued, the final verdict is handed down, and the appeals process is concluded.”

While this may be true, it is looking increasingly unlikely that a finger will be pointed anywhere near the Syrian regime. Daniel Bellemare, whose deliberate manner and aversion to grandstanding endeared him to the opposition (even as it frustrated March 14th stalwarts), has apparently assembled a huge dossier of evidence on somebody or some group. There will be an answer at some point, but probably not the answer that March 14th is looking for.

Interestingly, under the unlikely circumstances that Bellemare does have evidence that ties the murder to Syria via some other channel (a plausible scenario, when you think about it, given that such a political crime would not have been contracted out to high-profile security chiefs who were themselves the subjects of surveillance by Western intelligence agencies), then the opposition will find itself in a bind, having already certified the tribunal as unpoliticized and transparent. However, this seems extremely unlikely.

2. The changing regional situation

Most M14ers are reading this development, like Robert Fisk, as the first true sign of a grand bargain between the United States and Syria, perhaps auguring the return of a Syrian-Saudi condominium in Lebanon. When confronted with this theory on Maggie Farah’s OTV show last night, Sleiman Frangieh replied (and I paraphrase): “When the regional situation was to their advantage, why didn’t they charge the generals with a crime? It’s not as though they were charged, and when the regional situation changed the charges were dropped. They were never charged, because there was never enough evidence.”

Frangieh doesn’t tell the whole story, but his point is relevant to a broader issue, namely March 14th’s mismanagement of its dominant position in Lebanese politics between 2005-08. With the entire world on its side, a majority in parliament, a fragmented opposition, and no checks on its power in cabinet, March 14th squandered its clout on a politics of revenge that outlasted its utility. As I wrote here three weeks ago, I seem to meet a lot of disgruntled M14ers these days, folks who feel that the movement lost its momentum a long time ago and that its leaders (to quote The West Wing’s Joey Lucas) are “like the French radical saying, ‘There go my people. I should find out where they’re going so I can lead them.’

3. The upcoming elections

Will the generals’ release have any bearing on the elections? It depends on a few different factors. I don’t believe that too many people are going to change their vote. On the other hand, many more may be less inclined to vote at all, which is almost the same thing.

In order to get a sense for just how good the opposition feels right now, electorally speaking, think about how different the picture would look had Bellemare announced that there was strong evidence linking the four generals to the assassination, and that they were going to be transferred to The Hague where they would be charged with murder. March 14th’s prospects would have gone through the roof.

March 8th is capitalizing on this series of events by focusing their criticism less on Saad Hariri himself (who remains the grieving son) than on his conniving lieutenants: Marwan Hamade, Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea, etc. The point of this strategy is to help facilitate the transformation of March 14th — in the minds of its partisans — from a national movement into just another clannish affair.

By paying homage to Rafiq Hariri while disparaging those who sought to benefit from his assassination, the opposition is angling to turn his cause into yet another tribal grievance — like the murders of Kamal Jumblatt, Tony Frangieh, Rashid Karami, Bashir Gemayel, and many others — even as we speak. Kind of brilliant, when you think about it.

At the end of the day, there is something so fittingly Lebanese about the fact that the pronouncement of a foreign magistrate regarding the culpability of a foreign power should have a significant bearing on a local election. As a good friend would say in this situation: “You want it bad, you get it bad.”
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12 thoughts on “The Tribunal is Dead! Long Live the Tribunal!

  1. Could you be a little clearer on whether you think this means that the Syrians weren’t actually involved or if you think the US has somehow manipulated the court to give Syria a pass.

    Personally, I’m not so sure things are as definitive as either of those conclusions. I mean, these courts are slow, slow affairs (just look at those for Rwanda and Yugoslavia), so I don’t think the release means that no one will be held accountable. Even if they think the generals were responsible, if they don’t currently have strong enough evidence to ensure a conviction now, it’s hard to keep them locked up without their being charged with a crime after all this time. It’s one thing when Beirut does that but quite another when a UN Tribunal in the Hague does it.

    Posted by sean | April 30, 2009, 1:39 pm
  2. Certainly this is a blow to March 14th. But it seems to me that the opposition is already squandering whatever political capital they might have gained from it.

    It is clear that Hizbullah has not learned from its mistakes in the aftermaths of the July War and May 7th. Each time it wins a political or military battle, it insists on rubbing its victory in the faces of its Lebanese opponents, which only serves to solidify what, at this point, has basically become a hatred that many March 14th supporters harbor toward the Hizb.

    Assuming Hizbullah wants to win this election, what will they possibly gain from loudly embracing the four officers, and standing beside them as they hurl insults at M 14 and call Saad Hariri a spoiled child? This only serves to confirm the Hizb’s growing reputation as a sectarian party wa bas. And is publicly allying with these symbols of the Syrian Wasaya really the best way to win over Christian swing voters?

    The opposition, just as they did with their occupation of downtown and with the attack of May 7, is only solidifying the feelings of those who oppose them, while running the risk of alienating moderates. As the larger than expected crowd at this year’s Feb. 14th rally showed, political disappointment on behalf of M 14 does not necessarily hurt the turnout of their supporters. Perhaps it will even make them more fearful of a Syrian return and thus more likely to vote. But we shall see…

    Posted by N | April 30, 2009, 2:07 pm
  3. Just to say thanks for yet another wonderful post: well-observed, informative, judicious, and wry. great to find in the too often chaotic blogosphere.

    Posted by Helena Cobban | April 30, 2009, 2:14 pm
  4. I agree with Sean. I had my doubts about the Tribunal not falling victim to a political deal between the US and Syria, but I’ve since cast them away.
    The local political parties are using this as the latest big issue to grandstand on, but outside of Lebanon, I don’t think the Tribunal is nearly as politicized as people think. It’s no longer about the US, or Saudi Arabia, or Syria or M14 or the opposition trying to influence Bellemare’s decisions. Anyone trying to get anything out of the Tribunal now has to go through a whole army of lawyers, judges, and international civil servants, many of whom have no link or relationship to Lebanon at all, that is to say, have no political stake in the outcome.
    I wish there would be some kind of neutral legal public information campaign about the Tribunal… instead of the constant bombardment of partisan political discussions about it.(i’m not referring to this blog btw! but all the media outlets)

    Posted by Blackstar | April 30, 2009, 2:34 pm
  5. Helena,

    Many thanks, and honored that you’re reading.


    I really don’t know whether or not the Syrians were involved, and even if they were, I don’t know if the Tribunal will prove it.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 30, 2009, 2:37 pm
  6. Great post.

    But like Sean and Blackstar, I’m wondering how you got to the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely Syria isn’t off the hook. Is it because you think any other Assad-regime suspects would be more publicly discussed? You yourself say it’s “plausible” that it could be someone else below the public radar. I just don’t understand how you get from plausible to necessarily “extremely unlikely”.

    I’m certainly not hoping for any particular result – except justice – but if the tribunal is truly as legitimate and disinterested as most now seem to think it is, then why should the release of four individuals symbolize the exoneration of an entire regime, especially when we’re this early in the process? Fisk seems to concede that he doubted there was enough evidence to prosecute the 4 generals. Ok. So release them. Why does he then pose that geopolitics is necessarily the true hand at work? (Though they are no doubt waking up with champagne hangovers in Damascus this afternoon.)

    Final thought re Saad’s speech (which I only read through Daily Star and NOWLebanon snippets). Yes, it was of course spin. But his point about Hezbollah’s heel dragging was right, wasn’t it? Now, I’m a relatively recent observer of Lebanese politics. But doesn’t it make ‘Bollah look about as foolish as M14?

    Posted by daygator | April 30, 2009, 4:10 pm
  7. QN said:’By paying homage to Rafiq Hariri while disparaging those who sought to benefit from his assassination, the opposition is angling to turn his cause into yet another tribal grievance — like the murders of Kamal Jumblatt, Tony Frangieh, Rashid Karami, Bashir Gemayel, and many others — even as we speak. Kind of brilliant, when you think about it.’

    Brilliant? That has been the obvious line for the opposition since the beginning…It was maybe where some expected the case to stay from day one. From a lebanese perspective, the miracle is that it didn’t automatically join the list of assassinations pending to be solved by Lebanese Justice…per saecula saeculorum. The internationalization of the STL has been its original sin in the eyes of the opposition and of many leftist analysts out of Lebanon. But every lebanese knows there wouldn’t be a tribunal without the M14 insistence on it. Which of cause doesn’t mean that even this one in The Hague will be able, or even willing, to prove what everyone would love to know: who gave the order to kill.

    Posted by mj | April 30, 2009, 4:14 pm
  8. daygator:

    I just don’t understand how you get from plausible to necessarily “extremely unlikely”.

    I’m proceeding from the assumption that if the Syrians did it, they would have ensured that there were multiple degrees of separation between the bomber, the handler, the coordinator, the network, etc. etc. until you got anywhere near somebody in Damascus. We’re talking about a regime that is as opaque as you can get. They’re a black box. There’s like one photo of Assef Shawkat, from the 90’s. We go months without hearing anything about him, his whereabouts, etc. If the Syrians were involved, they would make it virtually untraceable.

    When the investigation got going and Mehlis began turning up all kinds of sensationalist stuff with Siddiq and Husam Husam, etc. and they threw the four generals in the slammer, people began to get their hopes up. A lot of that stuff has since been thrown out, and the generals have been released… so I can’t help but feel that the tide has turned, in a way.

    This doesn’t mean that a political deal was cut between the Americans and the Syrians. It just means that whatever political deals were in play before (under Bush) have been suspended.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 30, 2009, 4:40 pm
  9. Hey QN, thanks for the informative post.

    I read this news article in The National today’s morning and I thought I should pay your blog a visit. As usual, I am not disappointed.

    I wonder why does Robert Abu Fisk sounds so bitter? it’s not like he’s privy to damning evidence against these 4 officers. (Unless he went through the reams of the millions of phone-call records the GCHQ, as he claimed, was able to listen to up in Cyprus. ..)

    In fact, given the statement of Judge Frasen ““inconsistencies in the statements of key witnesses” and a “lack of corroborative evidence to support these statements”.”, one should wonder why people aren’t outraged that the four officers were held without sufficient evidence for that long?

    And let’s assume their release was due to some kind of plea-bargain deal; doesn’t that mean the tribunal/investigation was politicized from the beginning?

    As I said before on SC; Syria was forced to play along; it becomes irrelevant that Syria was innocent or not.

    Posted by offended | April 30, 2009, 4:44 pm
  10. Ahlan ahlan bi Offended. Where have you been ya zalameh?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 30, 2009, 4:46 pm
  11. QN,

    forgot to add, this gem from Robert Fisk proves once again that he’s unfortunately uninformed on Lebanese issues:

    In five weeks’ time, Hizbollah, the most loyal and the most security-conscious guerrilla movement in the Middle East – a new arrest in Lebanon of three alleged “spies” in the organisation attests to this

    if I remember correctly, the 3-spies-network wasn’t caught operating within hezbollah’s files and ranks. And it wasn’t caught by Hezbollah itself either.

    Posted by offended | April 30, 2009, 4:58 pm
  12. 3ala rassi ya Qifa, kulak zoo’. : )

    I’ve been around, there just hasn’t been enough juice in the news for me to stir s*** as I usually do. LOL

    Posted by offended | April 30, 2009, 5:01 pm

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