Understanding the Der Spiegel upheaval


The article published in Der Spiegel accusing Hizbullah of being behind the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, appears to use conceivably correct information to arrive at a conclusion the article itself never really substantiates: namely that “it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of [Hizbullah] that planned and executed the diabolical attack.” At most, the article declares that Syria “is not being declared free of the suspicion of involvement,” but that “President Bashar Assad is no longer in the line of fire.”

The author, Erich Follath, tells us what French journalist Georges Malbrunot already did in an August 2006 article for the daily Le Figaro. Malbrunot, like Follath, reported that the investigation of telephone intercepts after Hariri’s killing revealed that one of those involved in the crime had broken protocol by calling a friend outside the circle of assassins. This mistake led Lebanese investigators to discover that the alleged assassin had ties with Hizbullah.

Malbrunot did not name the person, but Follath does. He may be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, he writes, whose “recklessness led investigators to the man they now suspect was the mastermind of the terrorist attack: Hajj Salim … considered to be the commander of the ‘military’ wing of Hezbollah … [whose]secret ‘Special Operations Unit’ reports directly to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.”

The differences between Malbrunot’s article and Follath’s are essential. In his article, Malbrunot cited “someone close to Saad Hariri”, as well as “a source close to the [Internal Security Forces]” who evidently had information on the telecommunication intercepts. At the time, the investigation of the intercepts was headed by ISF Captain Wissam Eid, later killed in a car-bomb attack in January 2008. Significantly, however, the Hariri source did not believe that Hizbullah had carried out the Hariri assassination on its own initiative. “Who had the capacity to bring the equivalent of 1,200 kilos of TNT into Lebanon”, the source asked, before answering: “Syria, a Lebanese security service working with it, and Hizbullah.” The direction of Malbrunot’s article was that the operation was Syrian, but that Hizbullah may have somehow been brought into it.

Follath’s informants appear to be different. He says his information comes from sources “close to the tribunal and [was]verified by examining internal documents.” In other words Follath’s source appears not to be an employee of the tribunal, but someone who has contacts with it and access to documents the tribunal is working with. That leads to suspicion that the sources are Lebanese who, to corroborate their information, showed Follath Lebanese documents from, or on, the Eid investigation, copies of which must also be in the possession of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – hence the vague formulation “internal documents.”

Who would leak such documents, and why, remains to be seen. It seems improbable that this was done by a pro-Hariri source to affect Lebanon’s upcoming elections. After spending four years accusing Syria, the Hariri camp is not about to exonerate Damascus for uncertain electoral gains. The broader conclusions reached by Follath are his own, however, and are poorly argued. Nothing in his piece allows him to make the jump and push the burden of responsibility for the killing on Hizbullah. There appear to have been at least two “circles” participating in the crime; that Hizbullah members were, let’s say, in the second circle, which presumably was involved in shadowing Hariri, does not necessarily mean they were in the first circle, which supervised the actual assassination, whether directly or through a suicide bomber. Eventually, the Hariri tribunal may tell us the specifics of how Hariri was eliminated, but Follath’s article never even makes it clear which circle Ghamlush was in.

If Hizbullah did plan and execute the attack, a theory long discussed in Lebanon, it is virtually impossible to envisage that the party would have taken this action without receiving prior Syrian approval to do so. In fact, it is virtually impossible to envisage that it would have taken such action without Syrian direction to do so – direction that only Bashar Assad, given the centralized nature of Syria’s regime, would have signed off on.

Follath provides motives for the assassination that are laughable. He says that Hizbullah got rid of Hariri because his “growing popularity could have been a thorn in the side of the Lebanese Shiite leader Nasrallah. In 2005, the billionaire began to outstrip the revolutionary leader in terms of popularity.” Hariri also stood for what Nasrallah hated, Follath continues: close ties to the West and to moderate Arab regimes, as well as “an opulent lifestyle, and a membership in the competing Sunni faith.”

This is nonsense. Those who had an overriding motive to kill Hariri were the Syrians, because his expected successes in the summer 2005 parliamentary elections, so soon after passage of Resolution 1559 by the Security Council, would have seriously threatened their hold on Lebanon. Successive reports by the United Nations commission investigating the crime repeated that hypothesis, which has never been challenged.

Follath, intentionally or unintentionally, is being used to draw the light away from Syria by casting it on Hizbullah. However, all the evidence that has filtered out from the UN investigation, as well as circumstantial evidence, leads in the direction of a principal mastermind: the regime in Damascus, regardless of who was implicated in the crime to guarantee everyone’s silence. It was only Syrian participation that could have pushed the Lebanese security agencies, then completely dominated by Syria, to corrupt the crime scene; it was only Syrian participation that could lead a Lebanese security chief to distribute the video of Ahmad Abu Adas claiming responsibility for the crime; and it was above all Syrian insistence after 2006 that pushed Hizbullah and Amal to block the creation of the tribunal through Lebanese state institutions.

Recall this crucial exchange in April 2007 between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Assad in Damascus. The Shiite ministers had left the government, and there was talk of establishing the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Ban asked Assad to support the tribunal. Instead, Assad replied that Lebanon was a country of instability, which “will worsen if the special tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea …”

Echoes of Assad’s message permeate the Der Spiegel article, which implicitly asks whether the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri merits a Sunni-Shiite war. The Damascus conversation was leaked by a UN source to the daily Le Monde, and stands as a telling document. For why would Assad have been so worried about a tribunal passed under Chapter VII authority had Syria been innocent of Hariri’s elimination?

If Follath was given documents from or on Wissam Eid’s investigation, that means someone may also be trying to discredit Eid’s work by generating such a furor now over the accusation against Hizbullah, that it will be very difficult in the future to use the disclosures in such a way that they won’t be tainted by politics. The article may also imply that Eid, unlike the UN commission, actually did his work properly, and that someone is worried about the results. Who showed the “internal documents” to Follath, and are they the same people who might have earlier revealed to Eid’s killers that he was on to something?

These questions will continue to remain unanswered, and the tribunal process will continue to be open to manipulation, for as long as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon does not come out with a formal accusation. We are witnessing the consequences of a slipshod UN investigation since 2006. The prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, may have lost control of his case, and those who leaked to Der Spiegel could well be pushing for its complete collapse.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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