Rafik Hariri murder probe hinders progress on Lebanon-Syria ties

The Hariri murder probe is getting closer to issuing indictments, straining ties between Lebanon and Syria and complicating US goals in the region.

By , Correspondent

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    A billboard poster of assassinated Lebanese former prime minister Rafik al- Hariri and his son Prime Minister Saad al- Hariri (l.) is seen next to another one of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the port-city of Sidon in south Lebanon on Oct. 10.

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A five-year murder probe into the killing of Rafik Hariri by an international tribunal is complicating a Lebanese push to build a new, more amicable relationship with Syria, its powerful larger neighbor.

Since taking office a year ago, Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, has reached out to Syria in an attempt to mend several years of strained relations between the two countries following the assassination of his father, Rafik, a former premier, in a truck bomb blast in February 2005.

“Today, I am the prime minister of Lebanon and we wanted to open a new page with Syria and we have entered a new era of relations with Syria, on a state-to-state level,” said Saad Hariri.

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Hariri’s overtures toward Syria in recent months include several meetings with President Bashar al-Assad and a number of statements absolving the Syrian leadership of responsibility for his father’s death. But his efforts at rapprochement have met with mixed signals from Syria. Several bilateral agreements have been signed and Mr. Assad last week told the Arabic Al-Hayat daily that he had “no problem” with Hariri and that the doors of Damascus were always open to the Lebanese premier.

But a Syrian court recently issued indictments against 33 of Hariri’s political allies and advisers and Lebanon’s top police chief. Mohammed Naji al-Otari, the Syrian prime minister, recently described the political coalition to which Hariri belongs as made from “cardboard," a comment that drew angry reactions in Lebanon.

The United States has repeatedly accused Syria of transferring advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a claim that Damascus denies.

Indictments coming?

Overshadowing efforts to forge a new bilateral relationship is the ongoing investigation into the Hariri murder, which could see the issuing of the first indictments by a United Nations-mandated tribunal before the end of the year.

Syria, which dominated Lebanon politically at the time of the assassination, was widely blamed for Hariri’s murder. Syria has always denied the charge. Speculation shifted dramatically last year, however, amid reports that the investigation was focusing on members of the militant Shiite Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus.

Hezbollah’s leadership has denied any involvement in Hariri’s murder. In recent months, the group has mounted a campaign to discredit the tribunal, which it says is serving US and Israeli interests.

Last week, a group of women mobbed two tribunal investigators who allegedly were seeking telephone records in a gynecology clinic in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared the presence of the investigators an insult and demanded a boycott of the tribunal.

A dangerous situation

Last week, a senior UN official warned that Lebanon was in a “hyper-dangerous” situation.

Despite the focus on Hezbollah, Syria remains within the circle of suspicion for the murder of Hariri, as well as other prominent anti-Syrian figures, and would like to see an end to the tribunal, analysts say.

Only Saad Hariri as prime minister and the son of Rafik Hariri has the political and moral authority to publicly disassociate Lebanon from the Netherlands-based tribunal, which is why both Syria and Hezbollah support him continuing as premier and are pressuring him to reject the tribunal, analysts say. Nonetheless, the tribunal operates under a UN mandate and would continue functioning even if the Lebanese government ceased all cooperation with it.

So far Hariri insists on supporting the tribunal and says dialogue is the key to maintaining stability in the country. He also has rejected calls from some of his allies to step down from the premiership, a decision that could hasten a deterioration in security.

“It is impossible for him to resign as it would mean an invitation to take matters to the street,” says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon’s As-Safir daily. “It would be a declaration of a new civil war in Lebanon and I don’t think Saudi Arabia or Hariri or any other of his allies believe they can protect themselves and be a winner of such a civil war.”

Iran's reach

The potential fallout from the tribunal reverberates far beyond Lebanon’s borders. Hariri’s advances to Damascus compliment Saudi Arabia’s efforts to wean Syria away from its long-standing alliance with Iran, the principal backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon. On Tuesday the Saudi, Syrian, and Iranian ambassadors to Lebanon held a rare meeting in Beirut to discuss means of diminishing tension over the tribunal.

“The meeting aimed to support every effort for the sake of a healthy Lebanon immune against all forms of inciting discord and division with emphasis on justice and truth,” Ali Abdul Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Beirut, told As-Safir Wednesday.

The US has embarked upon a process of cautious engagement with Syria, focused mainly on reviving the Israeli-Syria leg of the Middle East peace process. But there are signs recently that the US may be toughening its attitude toward Damascus.

“Rather than playing a positive role, recent Syrian behavior and rhetoric has had a destabilizing effect on Lebanon and the region, and has contributed to these recent tensions,” says Jake Walles, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, citing the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah and the indictments against 33 Lebanese figures. “These types of activities directly undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty and directly undermine Syria’s stated commitments to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.”

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, says that the US may adopt more of a balanced “hybrid policy” with Syria than outright engagement in the coming months.

“By now most policy makers expected there would be daylight between Syria and Hezbollah, but the arrest warrants forced everyone to go back to the drawing board,” he says.

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