Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007
"What's up with the Hariri Tribunal?" was the question all Levant analysts in Washington were asking this week. They were in a quandary. Many thought establishing an international court would be a slam dunk. With full French and US backing, the way was clear in the Security Council to get a court established under chapter seven strictures that could try the murderers of Rafiq al-Hariri and drape the Syrian regime in chains, at least diplomatically if not actually.
"But now it looks as if President Jacques Chirac of France, who leaves office on May 16, may be about to lose the last battle of his 12-year presidential career," writes Patrick Seale.
Ban Ki-moon, the head of the UN, shocked an expectant March 14 crowd when he delayed decision on the tribunal until the end of May, when the present session of the Lebanese Parliament (which isn't meeting) is scheduled to end. Anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and 70 of parliament's 128 members have urged the UN Security Council to establish the tribunal. But Ban said he was not prepared to recommend council action now, and he refused to say how long he would wait. Lebanon's opposition has threatened that the country would be destabilized if a court is established under chapter 7 by the Security Council.
The March 14 coalition had pulled out all the stops to get a quick resolution establishing the tribunal, insisting that if there was to be action on the court, it had to be done before President Chirac left office in mid-May. Chirac was personally devoted to Rafiq al-Hariri and will be taking up residence in a Hariri owned apartment in Paris, upon leaving office. No one knows whether Sarkozy will choose to follow Chirac's anti-Syria policy, or whether he will decide that the Bush policy of confronting and destabilizing Syria is kaput, much as the Democratic Party in the US has.
The silence coming out of Lebanon following Ban's delay is deafening. Not a peep has emerged from the March 14th crowd, who had previously been trumpeting the tribunal as an "existential" need.
Why the silence? Shock, perhaps, but a more likely reason is that the Lebanese government is still hoping that Sarkozy will take up their cause. They are keeping their powder dry for a second push. For the last week in Lebanon, all eyes have been riveted on the revenge murder of two Sunni boys who were found near Sidon. The boys were linked to Junblat's party. Their killings have been blamed on the four brothers of Adnan Shamas, a Shiite, who was killed in the January 25 riots by Junblat supporters. Junblat has called for calm, and all Lebanon has been on tenterhooks, fearing that the incident could plung the country back into civil war. The opposition has threatened that if the tribunal is voted into existence by the Security Council, it will destabilize Lebanon. The March 14th crowd cannot allow an escalation of violence or animate international fears that Lebanon is perched at the edge of a precipice and ready to plunge back into civil strife.
The US administration has been silent as well, neither admitting the defeat of its Lebanon-Syria policy nor promising success in a month's time.
Even Syria has been silent, cautious about claiming premature victory. President Assad has been solicitous of Ban, promising him that Syria will enhance border controls to stop weapon smuggling to Hizbullah. The Lebanese and Syrian governments have agreed to reactivate a committee that meets on border issues at a higher level.
Syria has also been agreeable on the Iraq border issue in an effort to defuse US tensions and deny the neocons their favorite chant — "Syria is running a Ho Chi Min trail to the jihadists in Iraq." "There is some possibility that Syria may have taken some actions to make it tougher for these foreign fighters to move through,'' said Gen. David Petraeus. Syrians will go to Cairo to talk with Iraqis. Foreign Minister Mualem said he would be happy to talk to Rice, if she would talk to him.
If Washington must begrudgingly cease complaining about Syria's behavior on the Iraq border, it can find many other Syrian faults to deplore. Syria just held its parliamentary elections, which are of largely symbolic significance. Increased press freedoms in Syria and the spread of the Internet served to highlight the way in which the Baath Party controlled the election process. Several privately owned Syrian news sources – Syria News, Cham Press, and All4Syria have printed scads of critical articles by a wide variety of Syrians. Ayman Abdalnour, the editor of all4syria has described the important coverage of the elections his newsletter was able to carry in this article in English.
Syria's sentencing of Anwar al-Bunni, one of the country's leading human rights lawyers, to five years in prison, has been widely condemned by international agencies, the State Department, and Syrian activists. A letter written by Syria's leading political prisoners is posted on the Damascus Spring blog.
The sensitivity of the Tribunal issue at the UN is so high that the UN Undersecretary General for Legal Affairs Nicolas Michel, who has recently returned from Beirut, was only allowed to present an "oral" report to UN chief on the international tribunal. Presumably, Ban Ki-moon does not want a written report that might be leaked or passed around.
Lebanon remains paralyzed as government and opposition forces refuse to discuss any government bills until the tribunal question is resolved. Syria is playing it cool and insisting that the issue is none of its concern and something that must be resolved by Lebanese alone.
Meanwhile, the Levant states will be holding their breath for another month, to see how France's new president decides to position him or herself self in the Middle East labyrinth. Much can happen in a month. Should the Bush agenda continue to lose steam, there is little chance that even Sarkozy, should he be elected, will want to begin his presidency by placing his money on the March 14th government in Lebanon. Nor will he want to make the possibility of reopening dialogue with Syria more complicated, which the establishment of an international tribunal would certainly do. He has said that "Lebanon is important, but is not everything." Such ambiguous statements give him plenty of latitude.
Seale writes that a number of Security Council members, "notably Qatar, China and Russia, have indicated their reluctance" to establishing a tribunal under chapter seven. But as the world begins to think better of President Bush's policy of using force to solve Middle East problems, the three dissenting members of the Security Council are not the only states reluctant to endorse the tribunal. Lebanon is splintering and in no condition to be used as a battering ram to force change on the region.
Turkey, for instance, has rarely found itself at such cross-purposes with America since joining NATO in 1952. Over Iraq it finds itself more in tune with Iran and Syria, due to worries about its own large, restive Kurdish minority. Egypt and Jordan have close military ties to America too, but their governments must constantly parry sniping from such populist, exuberantly anti-American opponents as the Muslim Brotherhood." It concludes, "the State Department under Condoleezza Rice may be adopting less abrasive policies in the region. “They've come to realise that the multilateral approach can be more effective,” says an Arab ambassador…. America still chastises Syria, accusing it of meddling in Iraq and Lebanon. But Syria's relations with European as well as Arab countries, including Iraq, are thawing. It is probably a matter of time before Syria, Iran's closest regional friend, comes back from isolation."
Martin Indyk, the head of the Saban Center at Brookings, explains in a Washington Post op-ed that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is also determined to bring Syria back in from the cold. He may not be as keen on a tribunal as many Lebanese believed. Indyk maintains that President Bush's team has misunderstood Saudi Arabia terribly because it listened to a freelancing Prince Bandar, who promised that Saudi would join Washington in pursuing an aggressive policy to undo Hizbullah and Syria. Here is the plan as Bush people understood it and Bandar presented it:
Working in tacit cooperation, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel would roll back Iran's regional influence by taking down the extremist Hamas Palestinian government in Gaza, containing Hezbollah's bid to control Lebanon and destabilizing Iran's main regional ally, Syria.
The Saudi King has a very different plan. Indyk writes: "His opening price is Bush's accommodation of Hamas and Syria as players in the peace process, and he'll settle in the end for Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the West Bank."
Given the broad regional shift away from the Bush agenda of confrontation, it is little wonder that Ban Ki-moon decided to punt on the International Tribunal. For the same reason it is unlikely that Sarkozy will try to revive it during his first days in office. He will be planning a fresh approach to the Middle East.
Addendum: (May 2)
A number of readers believe that there will be a tribunal, but perhaps some compromise court not established under chapter VII, which permits the the use of coercive action. Bilal writes from France:
I do not think that the UN will back down from the tribunal. After several UN security resolutions & a lot of $ Millions spent so far on the investigation and then forget about it? Why and for whom? They will ALL (Bush, Chirac, UN, M14, & international community) loose credibility. It is way too much of a price to pay to save Bashar & the Syrian Regime. He is definitely not worth it.
Another factor that I am hearing about is the negotiations by the Saudis regarding change of status to a non-Chapter 7 probe, which would take much heat off of Bashar Assad. This is in line with the Saudi-Iranian talks in Riyad a month or so back, regarding a compromise deal on Lebanon, giving more of a share of power to Hezbollah, etc. All that seemed to hang on concessions to Damascus regarding the Hariri matter. The Saudis were negotiating with the Belgian judge and others regarding how to "modify" the Hariri tribunal resolution, so it would be less threatening to Syria, and likely get support from Hezbollah ministers with Damascus' OK. Does this conform with things you are picking up?
"C’est en tout cas ce qui ressort de la position exprimée récemment par le président du Tribunal pénal international spécial pour la Yougoslavie,Fausto Pokar, qui estime que « le Conseil de sécurité ne peut adopter le statut d’un tribunal dit mixte sous le chapitre VII de la Charte des Nations unies car le tribunal spécial pour le Liban (…) devra fonctionner selon les lois libanaises pour juger les auteurs des crimes commis localement et qui sont à caractère non international … Par conséquent, soutient l’expert, on ne saurait créer un tribunal mixte sans l’approbation de l’État concerné. Et quand bien même le Conseil de sécurité opterait pour le chapitre VII, l’État libanais devrait en ratifier le statut et la convention bilatérale, selon les procédures constitutionnelles en vigueur. Ce qui, si l’on en croit cette analyse, nous ramènerait, à la case départ, les institutions étant, à ce jour, paralysées."
On her plane en route to Egypt the secretary said she "wouldn't rule it out." Rice also said she felt Syria had an ultimate interest in helping a stable government emerge in Baghdad. Rice and Moualem will be in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for two days of meetings of Iraq's neighbors and U.N. Security Council permanent members.
A meeting between Rice and Moualem would mark a shift for the Bush administration. It is unclear how extensive an agenda Rice and Moualem would pursue.
Elaine Sciolino writes in the NYTimes:
Mr. Sarkozy is unabashedly pro-Israel. He stunned Arab ambassadors in Paris recently, opening his remarks by saying that his foreign policy priority as president would be to forge a closer relationship with Israel. He also has said in private that French policy has not been tough enough against Hezbollah, which he, unlike Mr. Chirac, brands a terrorist organization.