There is a view making the rounds that if Hezbollah members are indicted for their involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, ultimately the party will have no choice but to declare the individuals rogue operators, before distancing itself from them.
Yet how likely is this? The secretary general of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has declared such an outcome an impossibility, in response to an alleged offer from the prime minister, Saad Hariri, that the blame might be placed on the late Imad Mugniyah. However, Hariri’s predecessor, Fouad Siniora, who heads the prime minister’s parliamentary bloc, has hinted that some similar arrangement might be the only way out. Hezbollah need not be responsible for the actions of all of its members, he has repeatedly declared, indicating that the party’s foes would be willing to help it find an outlet to avoid accusations issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).
The line of reasoning is this, and Siniora is not the only one pursuing it: Whatever Hezbollah does – bring down or hinder the government, resort to violence or street protests, or even organize a coup against the state – would only push the nail in deeper when it comes to the party’s guilt, without affecting indictments. Implicit in this argument is that Hariri alone has the latitude to grant Hezbollah a certificate of innocence, and that, therefore, some sort of negotiation would need to take place for him to save the party from legal condemnation.
There is something there. Certainly, it would be very difficult for Hezbollah to find a Sunni willing to take over from Hariri and scuttle Lebanese cooperation with the STL. No one doubts that the party can strike hard against the state, but it is equally apparent that this could have grave repercussions on civil peace and draw Hezbollah into a debilitating internal political conflict, maybe even a military one. On top of that, nothing ensures the army will approve. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander, Jean Kahwaji, would not welcome a new slap against his institution, particularly if this creates sectarian tension that pushes Sunni soldiers and officers to say enough is enough.
Assuming Hezbollah could be made to consider working with Hariri on an exit strategy for the party – again, no mean feat – what would negotiations seek to achieve? For an approximate answer, we need to know what each side seeks today. Hezbollah wants Hariri to take tangible steps, before indictments are issued, to dissociate Lebanon from the special tribunal and cast doubt on its legitimacy. The party is not asking Hariri to declare it innocent of Rafik Hariri’s assassination because that is the fundamental premise on which Hezbollah is basing its position, something self-evident, so that if any Hezbollah member is named, we must all assume the accusation is politicized.
Hariri, in turn, may be willing to go part of the way to cast some doubt on the tribunal process, particularly if he sees that the indictments may be problematic to prove in court. That is why he prefers to wait until after indictments are issued to decide. But one thing is almost certain: he will not take measures on the tribunal unless he is compelled to do so by his patrons in Saudi Arabia; and, most important, if the Saudis say nothing, he will refuse to delegitimize the institution unless he first extracts concessions from Hezbollah.
What might these concessions be? Hariri is well aware that any demand for the disarmament of Hezbollah is a non-starter. In fact, those close to the prime minister will often repeat that their objective is not to terminate the Resistance. What he might conceivably ask for, however, is some sort of guarantee that the party will put an end to its campaign of domestic intimidation, and perhaps even something more tangible: assurances that Hezbollah will no longer use its weapons in Beirut, limiting this to areas under its effective control.
The chances that such a quid pro quo might come about would be infinitely complicated by Syria, which has no desire to give Hariri any latitude to bargain with Hezbollah, or Hezbollah with Hariri. The Syrians hope to use the tension between the prime minister and the party over indictments as leverage to enhance their own power in Lebanon; and if there is any bargaining to be carried out over the tribunal, then Damascus wants to be the only broker. Then again, neither Hariri nor Nasrallah wants Syria to gain at his expense.
Therefore, is reaching a middle ground possible between Hariri and Hezbollah? It’s not easy to see how, particularly as the prime minister, even if he is one day willing to surrender something on the tribunal, he will not be able to block the trial process altogether. And yet, short of violence or enforcing a national stalemate, which will only harden the resolve on Hariri’s side, Hezbollah has no alternative to embracing a compromise. It could be that Siniora and Hariri are not that clear about what they hope to achieve from such a process, but are now seeking to push Hezbollah to the realization that negotiations are inevitable, in that way defusing the ambient tension. If the party accepts – a big if – then the exchanges could shape the consequences.
Siniora is right about one thing: all options are bad for Hezbollah when it comes to the Hariri case. The party is learning a hard lesson that the convoluted Lebanese sectarian system can strangle those who refuse to respect its ways. Missiles won’t help Hassan Nasrallah this time around. Few victories in Lebanon are ever divine.