Lebanon facing crisis over Hariri case

2010-10-04 22:03

Beirut - Lebanon is facing a full-blown crisis as tensions over a UN-probe into the murder of its ex-premier mount with Syria, and a stand-off between rival parties escalates, analysts warned on Monday.

The crisis which has been brewing for weeks is linked to unconfirmed reports the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, is set to accuse members of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah of being implicated in the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.

Syria added fuel to the fire at the weekend by issuing arrest warrants against 33 people, among them several Lebanese officials, over alleged false testimony given in the case.

"The situation has taken a dangerous turn and the arrest warrants can be likened to a pressure cooker that has had its lid blown off," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

"There is really nothing to stop things from escalating further," he added.

"The road ahead is very bumpy and it's clear that the Syrians want the Lebanese government to discredit the STL and to stop co-operating with the court."

Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said he expects strains between Hezbollah and Prime Minister Saad Hariri - son of the slain ex-premier - to worsen and the real trouble to start after Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits Lebanon October 13 and 14.

"I think that ahead of Ahmadinejad's visit, the situation will remain relatively calm because Hezbollah does not want to sabotage the visit," Salem told AFP.

"The escalation will likely start after the visit," he said. "The war of words will continue and then be replaced by a paralysis of the government and institutions.

"Finally we could see street demonstrations and road blocks coming up as was the case in the past."

Salem was referring to the protracted political crisis that paralysed the Lebanese government for 18 months between November 2006 and May 2008 bringing the country close to civil war.

That crisis was resolved following Qatari mediation that led to the formation of a national unity government.

Analysts said on Monday it was clear the arrest warrants issued by Syria, which along with Iran backs Hezbollah, were a message to Hariri that he must make a concession on the STL.

"The prime target of these warrants is the tenant at the Grand Serail," said the Arabic-language daily Al-Akhbar, referring to Hariri.

But the Sunni premier, who in a stunning about-turn last month said he was wrong to blame Damascus for his father's killing, has made clear the issue of the tribunal was a red line he was not willing to cross.

There are fears that should the STL implicate Hezbollah, that could lead to a sectarian conflict between Lebanon's Sunni and Shi'ite communities.

"Saad Hariri will not bend in this case and Hezbollah is not going to back off," said Rafiq Khoury, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Anwar.

"It's like a Greek tragedy where the heroes reach a point of no return and must face their destiny," he added.

"It's like two trains heading towards each other and that will inevitably crash."