Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon should broaden its focus

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In the latest development from the ongoing saga surrounding the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the UN will be holding off on the prosecution of the suspected assassins for the time being.

As reported, legal proceedings against Mustafa Badreddine, Salam Ayyash, Hussein Anaissi and Assad Sabra, the Hezbollah members considered responsible for the assassination of Hariri, will not proceed in absentia.

Rather, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the UN-backed body tasked with prosecuting and resolving this matter, will wait for Lebanese authorities to arrest the four suspects.

The probability of the assassins being taken into custody is remote. Not only does Hezbollah effectively control the Lebanese government - including the police and security forces - they are in any case in a very good position to shield whoever they want.

As explained in this AP report, whilst escaping from authorities is not an easy feat, Hezbollah has been known to achieve a great deal more than this. In dealing with the CIA, they have whittled away one of its proudest outposts to a position of near insignificance.

Officials said several foreign spies working for the CIA had been captured by Hezbollah in recent months. The blow to the CIA's operations in Lebanon came after top agency managers were alerted last year to be especially careful handling informants in the Middle East country...

To be sure, some deaths are to be expected in these shadowy spy wars. It's an extremely risky business and people get killed. But the damage to the agency's network in Lebanon has been greater than usual, several former and current U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about security matters.

"Beirut station is out of business," a source told the LA Times on Monday. The same source alleged that no less than 12 agents have had their activities compromised. US officials dispute this figure, yet concede that certain operations were halted in the Summer of last year. But there is no dispute on the tactical significance of Beirut for keeping an eye on the tremors in the Middle East.

It is no longer news that Hezbollah unmasked CIA infiltration into its ranks. Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, has since visited CIA officers in Lebanon to determine whether there had been sloppy practices.

But it is Hezbollah's professional counter-intelligence force, what Nasrallah terms the "spy combat unit", which went operational in 2004, and which authorities believe to be formidable and ruthless, that make things difficult on the best of days.

In 2006, Nasrallah proclaimed the arrests of three members, two of whom were linked to the US organisation, and one to Mossad. And as of 2007, computer software that can provide a comprehensive analysis of cell-phone data is helping identify and siphon out those sabotaging their destructive aims (see here).

Hezbollah has done very well in evading an agency with the reach and resources of the CIA; evading the court room of an organisation as notoriously inept as the UN would be an easy task in comparison.

Even if the men are brought before the Tribunal, and subsequently found guilty, their convictions will do little to solve the broader issue; people with the same intent and capability will simply take their place. Perhaps less attention should be given to this symptom and more to the problem: the source of the bomb that killed Hariri and 22 others, and the ones who gave the orders, meaning, probably, the leadership of Hezbollah and Syria.

Lebanon's domestic affairs and the orientation of its foreign policy will be directed by Iran and Syria as long as their proxy continues to receive and utilise their patronage. Instead of what amounts to little more than symbolic gestures, the UN should take stronger action against the sources of Hezbollah's strength. Merely trying the foot soldiers who directly caused the death of Hariri will do little to bring the nation closure even in the unlikely event the tribunal is able to get its hands on them.

Michael Immerman