Faced with an embarrassingly low turnout of heads of state at this weekend's annual Arab summit in Damascus, the Syrian hosts at least escaped being singled out for blame in the latest progress report into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.
The report, released by a U.N. commission investigating the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, stated that the former Lebanese premier was killed by a "network of individuals" also suspected of being linked to some of the other assassinations to have plagued Lebanon in the past three years.
Syria, which dominated Lebanon at the time of Hariri's murder, is considered by many as the main suspect, although Damascus has denied involvement and public evidence remains circumstantial.
Hariri's assassination sparked outrage in Lebanon and a series of mass protests that forced Syria to disengage from its tiny neighbor two months later. Since then, however, Lebanon has been mired in deep political crisis, in which the Western-backed government and its supporters are at loggerheads with a pro-Syrian opposition. The United States and its Arab allies, including regional giants Saudi Arabia and Egypt, blame Syria for the deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country without a president since November. In a snub to Damascus, half the 22 heads of state invited to attend the Arab League summit sent low-ranking delegations instead, or in Lebanon's case boycotted the event entirely.
Looming specter-like above Lebanon's worsening crisis during the past three years has been the U.N. investigation into Hariri's murder, the final results of which are awaited by the Lebanese with a paradoxical blend of hope that it will end the crisis, and dread for what the truth might entail.
The latest progress report is the 10th released by the U.N. commission since it began its investigation in June 2005, but it was the first issued by the new chief investigator, Daniel Bellemare, a Canadian. Its contents were keenly awaited to see if he would be more forthcoming than his tight-lipped Belgian predecessor, Serge Brammertz. The original investigator, Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, produced two sensational reports during his six-month tenure that read more like crime thrillers. A draft version of the first report in October 2005 even named four leading Syrian security officials as suspects. Mehlis also advised the Lebanese authorities to detain four top Lebanese generals who were close to Syria. They have been held without charge in a Beirut prison since August 2005.
But Brammertz adopted a very different approach when he took over from Mehlis in December 2005. He shunned the media and released perfunctory reports that revealed little of the investigation's progress. He confirmed that the likely motive for Hariri's assassination was his political activities, centered on the former prime minister's deteriorating relations with the Syrian leadership in the last months of his life. And there appeared to be no drastic change of direction in the focus of the investigation as first conveyed by Mehlis. But there was no more naming of suspects, nor inclusion of witness statements that had so enlivened the two Mehlis reports.
As Brammertz pursued his investigation, the faceless assassins stalking Lebanon claimed the lives of three more anti-Syrian Lebanese lawmakers as well as a Lebanese army general and Lebanon's top police investigator. Some Lebanese maintained that the Belgian prosecutor's reticent approach was creating a climate conducive to more murders, bomb attacks and an escalating political crisis.
Brammertz' performance was a "total dereliction of duty," said Chibli Mallat, a prominent Lebanese law professor and former candidate for the Lebanese presidency. "No suspects, no one arrested, while the assassinations continue," he said. "Brammertz single-handedly destroyed the whole process."
The latest report, released by Bellemare, is even sparser in details than those of Brammertz. By pinning Hariri's murder on an unidentified "criminal network," Bellemare is merely confirming the obvious that it was a crime and that more than one person was involved.
But Bellemare makes no apologies for the lack of information. "Given the need to preserve confidentiality in its investigations, the commission will not be disclosing any names," the report said. "Names of individuals will only appear in future indictments filed by the prosecutor, when there is sufficient evidence to do so."
Last week, the U.N. announced that a special tribunal to judge those eventually indicted of the Hariri assassination could begin operating in April. The 11 judges have been selected, although their names are being withheld for now for security reasons. The tribunal will be located at the former Dutch intelligence headquarters outside The Hague. Some $60 million has been pledged by U.N. member states, sufficient to fund the court for a year.
Most analysts predict Lebanon's political paralysis to continue, possibly into next year with the players dragging out the deadlock until after the U.S. presidential election. The one factor that could disrupt the stalemate, however, is if Bellemare begins issuing indictments for the Hariri murder.
"The tribunal issue could really make things explosive in Lebanon," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. Still, Bellemare added in his report that experience has taught the U.N.'s legal team that "this process is not instantaneous." So it looks like the Lebanese will have to be patient for a while longer yet.