American visit to Lebanon before June elections

Press review – Week from April 27 to 30, 2009

The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did an unexpected visit to Lebanon last Saturday in Beirut to ensure that the policy changes of the new American administration will not mean any abandonment of Lebanon, reports Le Figaro. She particularly emphasized that Barack Obama’s decision to rebuild a dialogue with Syria would not be at the expense of Lebanon. This visit is not a coincidence: it took place a few weeks before the Lebanese parliamentary elections and at a time when the investigation by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on the assassination of Rafik Hariri seems to be progressing.

The question of Hezbollah and Syria

La Libre Belgique said that the head of the American diplomacy called for elections that must be « transparent and without any external interference. » Mrs. Clinton has advocated for moderated political forces, the U.S. administration fearing a victory of Hezbollah, which is regarded by the United States as a terrorist group. Indeed, B. Obama’s administration has confirmed that it will not talk to Hezbollah until the latter recognizes Israel and renounces to violence. However, on this issue, Hezbollah itself is being reassuring through the voice of the party’s No. 2, Sheikh Naim Kassem, in an interview with AFP in mid-April. He had then ensured that Western countries were already « jostling » to talk with Hezbollah which they can no longer ignore and with which they would have to deal ifit wins the parliamentary elections. Britain had announced last month that it was allowing contacts with Hezbollah, while Washington refused. Western countries openly wish the victory of the anti-Syrian majority.

The Turkish daily Hurriyet stressed that the United States list Hezbollah in terrorist organizations while the party already plays a role in the current Lebanese government. The spokesman for Hezbollah, Ibrahim Mussaoui, criticized the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State, saying that it could have a negative impact even on the pro-US factions in Lebanon if it is perceived as interference. He also denounced what he called « the double standard and disappointment » which includes the United States’ encouragement to Islamic factions to participate in elections and then to refuse the results if they win.

In parallel to this visit to Lebanon that is supposed to reassure on the quality of the relationships the United States want to keep with the country, Darrell Issa, Republican Congressman representing California in the U.S. Congress, with Lebanese origins, is the tireless advocate of Lebanon in America. The Lebanese daily L’Orient le Jour has followed its course within the Lebanese Diaspora in the United States. Darrell Issa has indeed assembled a group of businessmen, doctors, journalists and academics from the Lebanese Diaspora to address the importance of strengthening ties between the United States and Lebanon and on the American desire to see a strong, sovereign and independent Lebanon whose territorial integrity and the UN resolutions would be respected. Questioned byL’Orient le Jour, Darrell Issa considers a victory of Hezbollah in the next parliamentary elections would seriously harm the relations between Lebanon and the United States. According to him, the comparison with the election of Hamas will inevitably be made and a government led by H. Nasrallah would be dangerous for Lebanon. The senator cautiously welcomed the recent meeting of the American Congress with Bashar Al-Asad and believes that many issues remain to be resolved before the establishment of peace with Israel.

For its part, Reuters points out the position of Hezbollah as it has expressed on El Manar channel: the movement believes that Mrs. Clinton meddled in Lebanese affairs during her visit to Beirut and this interference is not in the interest of Lebanon but in the U.S. interests in the region. However, Reuters believes that the clashes between communities expected after the elections could be undermined because of the recent rapprochement of the United States with Syria and Iran.

The Syrian question has obviously been at the heart of the U.S. concerns in Lebanon and in watermark to any question on Hezbollah. Indeed, as reported by the New York Times, Mrs. Clinton, in parallel to her call to see transparent and free from outside influence elections, insisted on the continuation of peace agreements with Syria. The Obama administration has sent two envoys to Damascus last month in order to reopen diplomatic relations.

The investigation on the assassination of R. Hariri by the STL

The visit of Mrs. Clinton was also an opportunity for her to go to the tomb of Rafik Hariri, assassinated four years ago. Indeed, this question has since then poisoned the Lebanese-Syrian relations but also the situation within Lebanon, dividing the population between “pro” and “anti-Syrian. » On March 1st 2009 was established by the UN the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) whose task is to try those suspected of terrorist attacks in Lebanon including the assassination of Rafik Hariri, killed with 22 others in a truck bomb attack in Beirut on February 14th 2005, said Le Figaro. If the investigation has made some progress, many gray areas remain. If the identity of the perpetrator of the suicide car bomb attack of February 14th 2005 still remains unknown, the investigators now suspect that he comes from Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Investigators are now considering the jihadist possibility, dismissing the Palestinian refugee Abu Adass’ claim to be the author of the attack. For them, this claim was a decoy created by the group behind the attack, which would be headed by Hassan Nab’a, a Lebanese already involved in an Islamist revolt in northern Lebanon in 2000.

Another conclusion drawn by the investigators is that, contrary to what a witness had first said, the 4×4 that had exploded at the approach of Rafik Hariri did not come through Syria to enter Lebanon, but from Dubai and Tripoli in northern Lebanon, stressed Le Figaro. Regarding the motive for the crime, investigators still suspect the role of Hariri in favor of a UN resolution on the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. However, we still ignore the place where the bomb has been placed in the 4×4 and above all who the backers of this attack are. « Syria? Iran? Both helped by Hezbollah? A criminal group related to the billionaire Hariri’s financial activities? » questioned the journalist of Le Figaro.

The murder was back on the limelight this week due to the decision of the STL on Wednesday to order the release of four Lebanese generals imprisoned since August 2005 in the frame of the investigation. These former generals were the former head of the presidential guard, Mustafa Hamdan, the former Director General of the General safety, Jamil Sayyed, the former head of the Internal Security Forces, Ali Hajj, and the former chief of military intelligence, Raymond Azar, said AFP. In two reports, the inquiry commission mandated by the United Nations spoke of « converging evidence » on the involvement of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services in the attack. Since 2005, Syria denies any involvement in the case. A few weeks before the legislative elections where the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority is headed by the son of Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri, such a decision is not trivial.

Le Figaro reports that the Prosecutor of TSL, Daniel Bellemare, said that « the available information at present were not sufficiently credible to warrant an indictment. » Mustafa Hamdan was accused of having « cleaned » the crime scene in the hours following the attack while Ali Hajj withdrew some bodyguards to the former Prime Minister, a few months before his death.

In Romandie newsAFP reports that the son of Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian coalition, said he “welcomes any decision of the STL.” This intervention took place in response to a positive response from Hezbollah. Indeed, Saad Hariri wanted to stress that, contrary to what some had hoped, this decision was the beginning and not the end of the STL’s investigation that he fully trusts.