beirut - AP - August 25 2010
Lebanese soldiers patrol the streets of Beirut, Lebanon on August 24, 2010. Photo by AP
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The latest reports from Lebanon describe a frightened country; the Lebanese are terrified about the prospect of a slide toward civil war. Several reports speculate that Beirut residents are arming themselves in expectation of a flare-up of violence between the two main antagonists in Lebanon today: Hezbollah and its allies on the one hand, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his supporters on the other.

The investigation of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the father of the current premier, could turn out to be the spark that sets off the tinderbox.

A Lebanon-based website has in recent days posted an interview with an arms dealer who lives in Beirut and reports that there has been a rise in the sale of light firearms. He says the sales have spiked as a result of a clash in a Beirut neighborhood, Burj Abu Haidar, between an extremist pro-Syria Sunni group and Hezbollah militants; four people were killed in the skirmish (one was a Hezbollah commander, who died at the start of the fighting ).

In the meantime, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon this week has opponents of Hezbollah worried. The visit, perceived as a blunt statement about Iran's influence over Lebanon, has stirred concerns over how incendiary Ahmadinejad might be when he visits the southern part of the country and tours sites near Israel's border.

According to Beirut residents, the Hariri assassination casts a long, ominous shadow over daily life in Lebanon's capital, and has come in recent weeks to dominate public discussions. The release of the next report on the Hariri assassination, prepared by a special international prosecutor, has been deferred, by probably another two months at least.

Lebanon is rife with speculation that the report will lead to indictments against several top Hezbollah figures; many believe that the prosecutor has postponed the document's release as a way of getting more time to build an irrefutable case against these figures. As tensions in the country rise, well-placed Lebanese sources describe the country's mood as "gloomy." Though its scope is difficult to determine, the sources point to a trend that the country has already seen in its war-torn past: Lebanese residents are reportedly leaving the country.

Should the international criminal tribunal hearing the Hariri case cite the names of those implicated in the assassination, it is doubtful that the Lebanese government will arrest them. However, under international law, the UN court is authorized to try defendants in absentia, and in that case, court proceedings against the accused would be broadcast daily on Lebanese television, at least those that aren't controlled by Syria or Hezbollah.

Such trials are likely to exert a tremendous influence over public opinion. Worried about the disclosure of its apparent involvement in the killing, Hezbollah will take steps to undermine any such trial process. At this stage, Hezbollah insists that the special prosecutor is relying on false testimony, and it is also trying to put an end to Lebanon's funding of the court investigation (it is underwriting 49 percent of the costs ). Ten government ministers back Hezbollah's efforts to cut off the money supply; all it needs to bring an end to the funding is the support of one more minister.

Presumably, the possibility of a widely covered prosecution of accused Hezbollah operatives has the organization's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, nervous. This weekend Nasrallah presided over a ceremony marking the end of a project to plant 1 million trees across the country; Nasrallah's participation was seen as an effort to reinforce his credibility as a "Lebanese" patriot.

Since assuming control of Hezbollah in 1992, Nasrallah has pressured the organization to be less isolationist and more Lebanese. He realizes that if Hezbollah operatives are convicted for involvement in the Hariri killing, that would damage the efforts to brand Hezbollah as a patriotic Lebanese movement. Should the damage seem irreparable, Nasrallah's strategy of attaining power in the country by means of the ballot box would be rendered futile.

Syria has been working with Hezbollah to oppose the international investigation of the Hariri assassination. Last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem harshly denounced the special investigation, a position that generated tension when Moallem later met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Overall, it appears that Syria has increased its influence in Lebanon over the past six months; the Syrians have been filling in gaps that were left after they were forced to withdraw their troops from Lebanon five years ago, due to pressure that mounted after Hariri's death.

Given that backdrop, experts have been closely monitoring the relationship between Damascus and Tehran; the Syrians are clearly worried about an Iranian attempt to strengthen Tehran's grip over Lebanese affairs. The prime minister's office in Beirut is not the only place where Ahmadinejad's visit is generating tension. The Syrians will also be worriedly watching the Iranian leader's visit, knowing that their dreams of a Greater Syria could be slipping though their fingers once again, this time thanks to the Iranians.