The United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is expected to release its findings soon and could indict members of Hizbollah. This has raised tensions in Lebanon to the breaking point. Hizbollah wants the government to break all ties with the tribunal, but the current prime minister—Rafik Hariri’s son—is holding firm. 

Tensions are further compounded by several regional issues—including the recent visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ever-present possibility of an Israel-Hizbollah war, and problems over Syria's resurgent role in Lebanon. 

What are the likely scenarios in the coming weeks? Is Lebanon on the brink of another major collapse? And what can be done to address and stabilize the situation?

Paul Salem, director of Carnegie's Middle East Center in Beirut, discussed these issues with Aram Nerguizian, a scholar with the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway moderated the discussion.

Tensions over the Tribunal

Although the international tribunal has been endorsed by two successive Lebanese governments and the national dialogue meetings of 2006, Hizbollah is challenging its credibility. Early leaks suggest the tribunal is likely to implicate Hizbollah in Hariri’s assassination. In anticipation of the report, Hizbollah is waging a propaganda campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the expected findings, Salem explained.  

  • Questioning the tribunal’s neutrality: Hizbollah has accused Israel and the United States of manipulating the tribunal in an effort to marginalize the Shi’ite Party and its sponsors, Iran and Syria, stated Salem.  
  • Discrediting false witnesses: Critics of the tribunal allege the investigation has been tainted by the testimonies of false witnesses. Salem explained that Hizbollah has publicly accused the tribunal of relying on false witnesses, and has asked the Lebanese government to terminate its financial and judicial support of the tribunal’s activities.
  • Exacerbating the Sunni-Shi’a split: Hizbollah’s campaign to undermine the tribunal’s credibility has intensified the longstanding rivalry between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’a sectarian communities.  According to Nerguizian, the fault lines between these rival groups could easily erupt in a “domestic sectarian volcano.” 

Regional Dynamics

Lebanon has historically served as an arena for the proxy conflicts of regional powers, and key players such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel have competing interests surrounding the tribunal’s outcomes. Nerguizian argued that these external players could exert a decisive influence on the outcome of the current crisis. By virtue of Lebanon’s robust clientelistic politics, the decisions of Lebanon’s domestic political actors are heavily informed by their regional sponsors, and the balance of these various forces may determine whether the controversy surrounding the tribunal results in conflict or compromise.

  • Syria: Although early leaks suggested the tribunal would implicate Syria in Rafik Hariri’s assassination, recent unconfirmed reports indicate the blame will most likely fall on Hizbollah, explained Salem.  After Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri publicly apologized to Syria for accusing its leadership of orchestrating his father’s assassination, Syria has improved its relationship with Hariri’s government while backing Hizbullah on the tribunal issue.  Nerguizian noted that Syria has historically viewed Lebanon as its “front yard” in the Levant, and has rebuilt much of its influence there. 
  • Saudi Arabia: A historic Saudi-Syrian summit in July temporarily brought calm to Beirut, but did little to find a real resolution surrounding the tribunal and its anticipated findings, stated Salem.  In recent months, Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly wary of Syria’s intentions, ever since Syria threw its support behind Iran’s choice for prime minister in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki.  The formation of a Shi’a-dominated government in Iraq has curbed Saudi Arabia’s clout in Baghdad, and Saudi leaders are reluctant to accept another defeat in Lebanon. 
  • Iran: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon in October raised tensions not only with Israel and the U.S. but also with the region’s Sunni powers, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  However, with regard to internal Lebanese issues, Ahmadinijad highlighted the need for internal unity and cooperation among the various communities and parties. 
  • Israel: Israel has a strategic interest in curbing Hizbollah’s political and military influence.  If the tribunal ultimately blames Hizbollah for Hariri’s assassination, Israel might seek to exploit the verdict to bolster its case in any future war with Hizbollah’s forces in Lebanon, warned Salem.  

War on the Horizon

The tribunal is expected to announce the results of its inquiry by the end of this year, but Salem and Nerguizian warned that escalating sectarian tensions could spark civil strife before the findings are released.  Although the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) recently consolidated its position in various parts of Beirut and Lebanon, Hizbollah remains the country’s dominant military power.  By deploying additional troops in the south, the LAF intended to signal its readiness to protect the country’s domestic security, but Nerguizian argued that the LAF‘s capabilities and force posture remain tenuous and contested by Lebanon’s principal sectarian political actors. In the coming weeks, several potential conflict scenarios could occur.  

  • A brief and intense crisis: In one scenario, political tensions could ignite a short but violent confrontation between Hizbollah and groups loyal to the prime minister.  Given the asymmetric nature of the conflict, Hizbollah would inevitably claim a swift and decisive victory, according to Salem.  Faced with defeat, Hariri might resign his position or acquiesce to Hizbollah’s demand that the Lebanese government cut ties with the tribunal.
  • An extended conflict: The most devastating scenario, Salem argued, would be an extended civil war lasting months or even years.  A protracted sectarian conflict of this nature would pit Lebanon’s Sunni and Shi’a communities against each other and threaten the precarious power-sharing arrangement established by the 1989 Taif Accords.
  • War between Hizbollah and Israel: If the tribunal implicates Hizbollah in a second scenario, Israel might use the verdict as justification, perhaps next year, for an attack on Lebanon.  Salem warned that a war between  the two countries would decimate Lebanon’s economic and political institutions.

What Lies Ahead

  • An elusive compromise: If Hariri’s government and Hizbollah reach a compromise on the status of the tribunal, this mutual understanding could prevent sectarian tensions from devolving into armed conflict.  However, Salem and Nerguizian noted that an increasingly polarized political environment—pitting supporters of the tribunal against its critics—is hurting efforts to broker such a compromise. 
  • Tough choice for Hariri: Salem outlined two equally undesirable alternatives currently available to Hariri: Renouncing the tribunal investigating his father’s assassination or engaging Hizbollah in a fight he will surely lose.  
  • The role of the international community: Salem argued that the U.S. and the international community should continue supporting the tribunal, even if Hariri accedes to Hizbollah’s demands by withdrawing the government’s financial and political support for the investigation.  According to Nerguizian, U.S. policy should not underestimate the importance of managing Lebanon from a  security standpoint as a means of mitigating security spillover effects across the broader Levant region.