An international tribunal in The Netherlands is hearing testimony this week that, once more, seeks to implicate Syria in a high-profile assassination nearly a decade ago that changed the political landscape in Lebanon and continues to reverberate today.
As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad struggles to remain in power amid a grueling civil war of more than three years, the ghosts of the past could yet emerge to link his regime to the assassination of Rafik Hariri, an iconic former Lebanese premier who died with 21 other people in a massive truck bomb explosion in central Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose Lebanese and international members are appointed by the UN secretary general, so far has indicted five members of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization, for the assassination. But the prosecution has not yet established a clear motive.
In the tribunal’s first session devoted to hearing evidence about Syria’s role in Lebanon before 2005, Marwan Hamade, a lawmaker and former minister, said Monday that, “These are the roots of the conflict which, in my opinion, ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri.” Mr. Hamade survived a car bomb assassination attempt in October 2004, just four months before Mr. Hariri was killed.
Although many quickly blamed the Assad regime for Hariri’s murder, a subsequent UN investigation failed to link the prime suspects in Damascus to the assassination. Instead, it uncovered a trail of evidence that led to indictments against the five Hezbollah members, including a senior commander.
The tribunal agreed last week to a prosecution request to hear testimony on Syria’s steadily worsening relationship with Hariri in the months before his death that could refocus attention on Syria’s alleged role in the murder. Additionally, it was revealed last week that in October the prosecution added a phone number belonging to Mr. Assad into a court document, raising speculation that the Syrian president could have been in direct contact with one of the conspirators.
The prosecution’s case so far mainly rests on a complex cellphone co-location analysis that established overlapping networks of conspirators, four of whom, all members of Hezbollah, were identified and indicted in 2011. A fifth Hezbollah man was indicted last year. But the gaping hole in the prosecution case up to now has been the lack of motive for Hezbollah to want Hariri dead.
Hariri, an ambitious billionaire businessmen who helped rebuild Beirut following the 1975-1990 civil war, maintained cordial relations with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in the months before his death. They regularly held what were then secret meetings where the two men would sip coffee and snack on fruit while debating Lebanese and Middle East issues.
Instead, Hariri’s problem was with the Assad regime, which at the time increasingly viewed the former prime minister – he resigned in October 2004 – as a threat to its political dominance of Lebanon. Damascus blamed Hariri for quietly backing a UN resolution in 2004 calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and for Hezbollah to disarm. The Syrian authorities also forced Hariri to back a three-year mandate extension of its close ally, then Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.
Hariri’s “deteriorating ties with Syria makes the evidence more explicable,” David Re, the presiding judge of the trial chamber, said last week in permitting the testimonies to proceed.
But defense lawyers have argued that the prosecution's new focus on Syria amounts to a “sea change” and should have been included in the original indictments, which made no mention of the Syria connection.
“Let us not be coy about it: The prosecutor now is putting his case on the basis of Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri,” Iain Edwards, a defense lawyer for Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah commander who is one of the five indicted suspects, said last week at a hearing on whether to allow the testimonies to proceed.
At least a dozen politicians, journalists, and advisers to Hariri are expected to testify on Syria’s role in Lebanon in the coming months.