A murder mystery that has gripped Lebanon and much of the Middle East for nearly six years is nearing a climax. This month a Netherlands-based international tribunal is expected to issue the first set of indictments in its investigation into the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a massive bomb blast that rattled Beirut and shook Middle East politics.
Although the United Nations-sanctioned tribunal has remained tight-lipped, it's widely speculated that members of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia with ties to Iran and Syria, will face charges.
While some Lebanese believe the tribunal is necessary to end the era of assassinations and bloodshed, others fear that laying blame for Mr. Hariri's murder on Hezbollah could end the relative calm of the past two years and return Lebanon to political paralysis and possible violence.
How focus shifted from Syria to Hezbollah
Lebanon, despite being a small country of some 4 million people, punches well above its weight in the region. It is strategically placed between enemies Syria and Israel, and its multitude of diverse religious sects draws regional powers – including heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia – to vie for influence here.
Hezbollah emerged as a potential suspect in the Hariri assassination last year. Originally, all fingers pointed to Syria, which dominated Lebanon at the time of Hariri's death. Relations between Hariri and the Syrian leadership deteriorated badly in the months before the February 2005 assassination. Syria was widely suspected of having ordered his murder to protect its dominant status in Lebanon.
The suspected Syria connection, however, was overshadowed when reports emerged in 2009 alleging Hezbollah's involvement in the crime. The investigation has uncovered evidence to suggest that the assassination plot was multi-tiered and involved a large network of people.
The extent of Hezbollah's alleged role remains unclear, although it has been reported that Hezbollah members had monitored Hariri's movements in the weeks before his death. Diplomats say that Syria is not off the hook, however; while the first indictments are expected to focus on Hezbollah, investigators still consider Syria has having played a lead role.
Diplomats: Three people to be indicted initially
Diplomats briefed on aspects of the tribunal's activities say that indictments are being prepared against approximately three people initially, but more could be issued in the months and years ahead as fresh evidence emerges.
Hezbollah, which views the tribunal as politically tainted and a judicial weapon wielded by its enemies, has hinted that it could take action in the streets if its members are indicted.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, warned that the hand of anyone attempting to arrest his cadres would be "cut off" and declared that any Lebanese cooperating with the tribunal is working against the "resistance," a term used to describe the party's formidable military wing.
Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, told Lebanon's Al Balad newspaper on Dec. 1, that, "We are not discussing the issue of an indictment, but rather a conspiratorial step against Hezbollah. We cannot deal with the matter naively as some are attempting."
Hezbollah pressuring PM Hariri
Residents of Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut say that the atmosphere is tense. "The expectations are very bad. Hezbollah people are holding meetings constantly. It's no secret that they have prepared many plans to deal with the indictments," said one resident.
Hezbollah has steadily increased pressure on Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik, to formally declare the tribunal as "politicized" and to cease all cooperation with it.
The tribunal includes Lebanese judges, is conducted under Lebanese law, and the Lebanese government pays 49 percent of the costs, the rest coming from international contributions. But even if Lebanon stops supporting the tribunal, the UN Security Council has the option of continuing the judicial process.
So far, however, Prime Minister Hariri has shown no sign of reversing Lebanon's course on the tribunal.
Regional players look for a solution
In an attempt to head off a potential political deadlock and possible violence as a result of the indictments, some of the key regional players in Lebanon – Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey – are attempting to find a solution to preserve stability.
"It is very clear that Lebanon is on the agenda of regional powers … based on the formation of a regional conflict management mechanism. I think the energy of all these five or six states will probably lead to something," says Ousama Safa, an independent Lebanese political consultant.
Details of the possible compromise are scarce, although some Arab diplomats and Lebanese politicians recently have expressed optimism.
"The situation is heading toward a major breakthrough, and we will see the Lebanese closing ranks," Ali Awadh Assiri, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, told Lebanon's NBN television last week.
Potential options include delaying indictments or having Hariri publicly absolve Hezbollah of blame for his father's assassination and blame it instead on a few "rogue" members of the party. Still, it is unclear whether any of the proposals under consideration can simultaneously satisfy the demands of both sides.
Syria not off the hook
While initial indictments are expected to focus on Hezbollah, diplomats say that the tribunal has not absolved Syria of culpability. On the contrary, they say the working assumption of the investigators remains that Syria played a lead role in the Hariri assassination even if hard evidence has been slow to materialize.
Although Hezbollah probably has the capacity to carry out an assassination of such magnitude, the party had little motive to want the elder Hariri dead.
Furthermore, some analysts say that Hezbollah was not in a position to independently assassinate someone of his stature except under the instructions of its Iranian and Syrian backers. The diplomatic sources say they expect the focus of the investigation to return to Syria once the Hezbollah lead has been exhausted.