I’ve been having a debate with several of my regular commenters over the past month and I thought it was time to dig it out of the forum and give it its own post. The topic: how Hizbullah plans to face the upcoming indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which everyone assumes will accuse the party of assassinating Rafiq al-Hariri.
Let me set the stage by referring you back to something I wrote immediately after the Hariri government collapsed back in January:
Setting aside the cynicism of Hizbullah’s political strategy, I continue to think that it’s somewhat desperate and uncharacteristically short-sighted. What has Hizbullah really achieved by replacing Hariri with Miqati? […] Even if Miqati did agree to doing [their] bidding, isn’t it obvious that he can’t end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL on his own? He needs the cabinet to vote on it […] And it wouldn’t work! That’s what so desperate and puzzling about this whole strategy. The court has been set in motion. The evidence is going to be made public sooner or later. It’s just that it will now come out with an angry Sunni audience in Lebanon led by a politician who has less to gain than ever from playing by Hizbullah’s rules. Had they tried to find a way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, they could have at least made Hariri do the talking when Lebanon got around to formally denouncing the STL indictments. Now it will have to be Miqati, who has already been branded as a Hizbullah puppet.
Okay, so bringing down Hariri’s government did not solve Hizbullah’s problem with the STL. That much is clear. The question is: what do they do now?
Some of my readers have claimed that Hizbullah’s game plan was simply to keep the government in limbo until after the indictments came out, because it would not be in the party’s interest to be seen as leading a government that refuses to uphold its obligation to the UN and the international community. While they did waffle for almost five months (not quite as long as the king of waffles, but still…) they eventually did form a government with Najib Mikati in charge. This seems to suggest that there is some kind of plan in place for how to deal with the indictments.
One reader, RedLeb suggests the following:
As regards the STL, which frankly is a much weaker threat to Syria and Hizbullah than Syria’s domestic strife, there will be a course alteration, but not a full 180 degrees flip. We will switch from a cabinet that cooperated with the STL, but circumscribed by Hizbullah suspicions, to one non-cooperative with the STL, but circumscribed by Sunni sensitivities. It will not collapse when the indictments are issued. Hizbullah will rely on Miqati to maintain domestic stability and manage international relationships while the trial is underway…
They will go along with the bare minimum required to not cause a confrontation, without any enthusiasm. We’re talking foot dragging, endless discussion of every request, and haggling over semantics. Any time they sense the US is losing patience, they will give just a little to keep things afloat.
Another reader, AIG, finds this unconvincing. He says:
Lebanon may be asked to arrest some of the people indicted. What will the government do then? In addition, Hizbullah will have a hard time disassociating itself from the defendants if higher ups in Hizbullah are named. For example, relatives of Mugniyeh… Miqati will need to perform a tight rope act on a non-existent rope. There is just no way he can please both the US and March 8. Unlike Syria, Lebanon will suffer greatly from sanctions on its banking system or from its inability to roll its debt. The best solution for Lebanon is to hide behind the excuse of a caretaker government. Any other strategy is super risky.
So what’s a billionaire prime minister to do? Does Mikati have any options? Or is this government a farce? What is Hizbullah’s calculation vis-a-vis the STL? Are there any deals (in the vein of the ill-fated “Syrian-Saudi” initiative of 2010) to be made between Lebanon and the UN? Here are some thoughts:
What Hizbullah wants from the Lebanese government is what it has always wanted: a certificate of legitimacy (and in this case, innocence). Has Lebanon ever been sanctioned for “harboring terrorists”? No. Has a Lebanese government ever faced an attack on its banking sector because Hizbullah has members of parliament and ministers? No. Has Lebanon ever had to deal with the repercussions of a cabinet statement that justifies the existence of a national resistance against Israel? No.
Hizbullah is hoping that it can maintain this status quo even in the context of STL indictments. It wants Mikati to find a way to fudge Lebanon’s responsibilities to the STL without having the country pay an exorbitant price (in the same way that Lebanon gets to harbor a militia with tens of thousands of missiles pointed at Israel without facing serious sanctions by the West.)
This is the game plan. Many people want to believe that this is simply not an alternative that is available to Hizbullah and they may be right. If the West decides to play hardball with Lebanon and puts the screws on it as a way to pressure Hizbullah, then they can certainly do that. But Hizbullah is betting that it can win that battle as well. They are betting that people are sick and tired of the STL and want to get on with their life, and don’t really give a hoot about Rafiq al-Hariri anymore and will become more angry and frustrated with the West and Israel than with Hizbullah if sanctions are applied.
That, in my view, is what Hizbullah is thinking. Even if the STL puts on an incredible show with all kinds of compelling evidence, forensics data, DNA testing, iron-clad witness testimony, etc., Hizbullah will be able to live with that. At the end of the day, they feel confident that most of their supporters will not believe it, while many others in Lebanon just won’t care.
What they want to avoid, on the other hand, is having to take some kind of military action against a Lebanese government that is forced to arrest party members because it is being threatened with a full frontal sanctions regime. If Mikati can find a way of maintaining Lebanon’s formal commitment to the STL while recusing his government from the responsibility of arresting suspects and avoiding sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Hizbullah probably thinks that it will be able to live with the bad press.