Rare Arab summit to forestall possible Hezbollah unrest in Lebanon

An Arab summit of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria met in Beirut today for the first time in eight years amid rising concern that the Hariri assassination tribunal could indict key Hezbollah members – sparking Hezbollah unrest.

By , Correspondent

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    Saudi King Abdullah (l.) meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (r.) at Hariri's house, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday. An Arab summit of the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia launched an unprecedented effort Friday to defuse fears of violence over upcoming indictments in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
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The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria arrived in Beirut Friday for an unprecedented summit with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. The visit comes amid rising regional concern over the potentially explosive findings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

The Netherlands-based tribunal reportedly has found evidence implicating members of Hezbollah in the truck bomb assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

The powerful Shiite militia has denied any involvement in the assassination. But if indictments are issued in the coming months as is widely expected, it will cause at the very least a major political crisis. Worse, it could spark outbursts of sectarian violence, analysts say.

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“The rapid rush of kings and presidents to Lebanon confirms that this is a very serious development,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “The scenario that Hezbollah is implicated is the worst-case scenario. It raises problems at every level.”

Strategizing about how to contain potential fallout

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived separately in Beirut early Friday afternoon and headed to the Baabda presidential palace in the hills overlooking Beirut for a meeting with Mr. Suleiman. It was the first time either of them have visited since an Arab League summit in 2002, underlining the level of unease in the region at the potential fallout over the tribunal’s findings.

Mr. Assad, who together with Mr. Abdullah was expected to help Lebanon strategize over how to contain the likely fallout, was quoted as describing the summit and side meetings with senior Lebanese officials as "excellent."

A final communiqué called on all Lebanese not to resort to violence in settling their differences and declared that Lebanon's well-being should come above partisan interests.

Mending Saudi-Syria rift

Rafik Hariri was a Saudi protégé and his murder in 2005 fueled a bitter split between Saudi Arabia and Syria – a new cold war whose fault line ran through Lebanon. Syria was widely blamed for the killing although it has always denied involvement.

The Saudi-Syrian rift was further aggravated by their differing stances toward Iran. Syria and Iran have been close allies for three decades while Saudi Arabia leads Arab opposition to Iran’s growing influence in the region. The rivalry was played out in Beirut where the Saudis and Syrians backed opposing political factions.

However, Saudi Arabia patched up its differences with Syria last year, hoping to woo Damascus away from Tehran and back into the Arab fold. The Syrians so far have refused to sever ties with Iran but nonetheless appear anxious to maintain good relations with their Arab neighbors and to roll back some Iranian influence in Lebanon.

The improved ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria were reflected in Lebanon with a gradual easing of tensions between rival factions. Saad Hariri, the Saudi-backed prime minister and son of Rafik, has visited Damascus three times since December, most recently last week at the head of a large ministerial delegation.

“Both Syria and Saudi Arabia have an interest in curbing Iran’s sway over Hezbollah, and ensuring Hariri’s political survival, now that the latter has mended fences with Damascus,” says Elias Muhanna, a Lebanese political analyst and author of the Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki.

Hariri could face impossible choice

Mr. Hariri has consistently supported the international investigation into his father’s murder since its inception five years ago. But if indictments are issued against members of Hezbollah, it will place him in an impossible position.

“The government is already under pressure and it will face even more pressure to change direction on the tribunal,” says Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

If Hariri distances himself from the tribunal and accepts Hezbollah’s argument that the investigation is flawed and politicized, it will make a mockery of the judicial process and cast into doubt the tribunal’s future. Lebanon could end its obligation to pay 49 percent of the costs of the tribunal, the remainder of which comes from donor states.

On the other hand, if Hariri accepts the tribunal’s indictments, it would place him on a collision course with Hezbollah and risk the collapse of his coalition government and the outbreak of renewed Sunni-Shiite strife after two years of relative domestic calm.

Mindful of the fears surrounding the tribunal, Hariri repeatedly has attempted to assuage concerns of violent repercussions.

“I say to the Lebanese, don’t be afraid. There will be no strife or war. All [the speculation of strife] is merely intimidation by Israel,” Hariri told the pan Arab Al-Hayat newspaper last week.

Nasrallah casts tribunal as Zionist conspiracy

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, said last week that Hariri had told him in May that the tribunal would indict “undisciplined members of Hezbollah” rather than the party as a whole. The tribunal’s investigators interviewed up to 20 Hezbollah members in March at an office in southern Beirut, the party’s stronghold.

But Nasrallah and other party officials have vehemently rejected Hezbollah’s alleged role in Hariri’s assassination, accusing the tribunal of serving US and Israeli interests.

“We believe that there is a major plot to target the resistance [Hezbollah’s military apparatus], Lebanon and the whole region,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

Adding to the intensifying speculation, Israel’s Channel 1 television reported Thursday night that the tribunal has identified the chief suspect in the Hariri murder as Mustafa Badreddine, who is believed to be a senior security official in Hezbollah. Mr. Badreddine was the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyah, the organization’s top military commander who was killed in an unresolved assassination in Damascus in February 2008.

The fact that Badreddine’s alleged involvement in the Hariri assassination was revealed by an Israeli media outlet will serve as additional ammunition in Hezbollah’s campaign to attack the credibility of the tribunal.

“Nasrallah has been vocal on this issue in order to soften the ground ahead of an impending indictment against the party,” says Mr. Muhanna. “He is trying to get out ahead of the story in order to impose some measure of control over it, casting it as a Zionist conspiracy or an American plot to target the resistance.”

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