You know that feature Lebanon has? The one where the politicians change sides and then decide to criticize the past of the opposite side even though they were once part of it?
Marwan Hamadeh testified at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Tuesday.
Syria’s unforgiving domination of Lebanon under the regime of President Bashar Assad took center stage at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon Monday, with a senior politician testifying that the conflict over the Syrian presence paved the way for the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.
“These are the roots of the conflict which, in my opinion, ended in the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri,” said Marwan Hamade, an MP and former minister who survived an assassination attempt in 2004, referring to the debate over Syria’s presence in Lebanon during a testimony before the STL.
For a whole day of testimony, the Druze MP who was once an ally of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, detailed how Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Bashar’s rise ushered in an era of unprecedented Syrian interference, from allowing Hezbollah to keep its arms to direct orders by the Syrian president on the makeup of the Lebanese Cabinet.
“From 2000 … it became clear that Bashar Assad wanted control of every aspect in Lebanon,” he said.
One example was a nighttime visit by Rustom Ghazaleh, Syria’s chief of military intelligence in Lebanon, to Hariri in April 2003. Ghazaleh arrived with alleged orders from Damascus for the formation of a Cabinet with an over a two-thirds majority of pro-Syrian ministers – to be announced the very next day.
“Rafik Hariri sent for us members of the former government and potential members of the future government to discuss this new diktat that had come from Damascus,” Hamade said, sporting a navy blue suit and red tie. “He said specifically we have to change the government, we have to change some of your colleagues, and this has to be done by tomorrow.”
The aim of the reshuffle was to lay the groundwork for the deeply unpopular renewal of then-President Emile Lahoud’s term in 2004, which defined the breakdown in relations between Assad and Hariri, and was the cause of Hariri’s outright opposition to Syria’s influence.
“It was in fact the preparation for the new coup d’etat of Syria in Lebanon which would take place with the election of Emile Lahoud in 2004,” Hamade said.
Hamade became the first of more than a dozen “political witnesses” to testify before the court on the breakdown in relations between Lebanon and Syria under Assad’s leadership, in the first court case to examine Syria’s alleged role in the gravest political assassination in modern Lebanese history.
Former prime minister and head of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc Fouad Siniora confirmed to The Daily Star that he would also be delivering testimony before the court.
The STL is tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the 2005 bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others and led to street protests that ended Syria’s formal tutelage over its smaller neighbor. The court has indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the attack, but no Syrian official has ever been formally charged despite investigators concluding shortly after Hariri’s killing that the operation was so complex that it could not have been carried out without the knowledge of senior Lebanese and Syrian officials.
The renewed focus on Syria’s role has led defense lawyers to cry foul, arguing that prosecutors were now focusing on Assad and his security apparatus as being behind Hariri’s assassination. Prosecutors say the political context could offer a glimpse into the motive behind the killing.
The political testimony is supposed to cover Hariri’s deteriorating relations with Syria, Syria’s corresponding resolve to exert “control beyond mere influence” in Lebanon, the international community’s growing concern at Syria’s interference, the evolution of an anti-Syrian opposition movement and Hariri’s role as an influential statesman, particularly in the Gulf.
The testimony will cover crucial meetings between Hariri and Assad, the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 ordering Syria’s withdrawal and Hezbollah’s disarmament, and other key political events. Prosecutors said the testimony could help provide a “political motive” for the assassination.
Hamade detailed how Syria repeatedly failed to implement the Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese Civil War. Hamade was a minister in the national unity government of Omar Karami after the Civil War and was part of a ministerial committee supervising the disarmament of militias.
He said the government at the time openly endorsed Hezbollah’s retention of its weapons to fight the Israeli occupation.
But he said the most egregious interference by the Syrian regime came with the rise of Bashar Assad and the Israeli withdrawal from the south, removing the raison d’etre for Syria’s presence and Hezbollah’s arms.
He said Syria distorted the cooperation treaty with Lebanon to enable a pervasive infiltration of the security services. Under Assad, Syria sought to control not just security and politics but also Lebanon’s financial resources, while also barring Lebanon from seeking an independent peace with Israel.
The Syrians’ “big break” with Hariri occurred as he sought to build up the Lebanese state with a free economy and functioning institutions.
“A new atmosphere prevailed after 2000,” Hamade said. “We felt nobody was anymore concerned with the sovereignty, prosperity and institutions of Lebanon. What was important is to keep Syrian influence and translate it internally into the growing influence of Hezbollah.”
He accused the Syrians of trying to foil reconciliation attempts between the Druze and the Christians, as well as influencing the Constitutional Council, Lebanon’s highest court, to prevent the election of anti-Syrian MP Gabriel Murr and ordering the closure of his TV station, MTV.
He described Syria’s growing tutelage over its former neighbor in the years after the end of the Civil War as one where Syria saw itself as a “superpower” and Lebanon as the “underdog.”
“Anything military, foreign policy and security was one-handed,” Hamade said, “the Syrian hand altogether, and its allies or agents in Lebanon.”
The relationship went from “years of hope” immediately after the Taif agreement to “disappointment” and finally to “collapse and despair.”
Hamade is expected to continue testifying for two more days, before cross-examination by the defense.
MP Marwan Hamadeh resumed on Tuesday his testimony before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, focusing on Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon under the premiership of slain PM Rafik Hariri and examining his ties with former President Emile Lahoud.
The ties between Hariri and MP Walid Jumblat came into prominence during the debate over the extension of Lahoud’s term in 2004, prompting the STL Prosecution to reveal that it is studying the possibility of summoning the lawmaker to make his testimony before the tribunal.
Hamadeh kicked off the second day of his testimony by addressing the Syrian leadership’s opposition to the Taef Accord and attempts to execute the remaining articles of the agreement that were not implemented at the end of the Lebanese civil war.
The MP recounted how he had proposed to Hariri to include the implementation of the remaining articles in a ministerial statement in 2003.
“I had presented to Hariri in 2003 some articles of the accord that had not been implemented, such as Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, to which the former PM responded, ‘Do you want to kill us both?’ before throwing the sheet in the trash,” revealed Hamadeh.
“Hariri believed that referring to the Taef Accord in the ministerial statement would be tantamount to a declaration of war against the Syrian regime,” he added.
The lawmaker stated that Hariri had reservations over Syria’s influence over Lebanon, confiding to him of the pressure he was under from Syrian officials.
“Hariri was very annoyed with this influence and he used to relay to us the details of his meetings in Damascus and with (Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon) Rustom Ghazali,” he continued.
“I used to meet with Hariri on an almost daily basis and his greatest concern was how to diminish Syria’s influence, such as through parliamentary polls,” he said.
In addition, he remarked that Hariri’s annoyance with Syria reached a peak when he decided in 2000 to withdraw from political life in Lebanon.
Attention was then shifted to Syria’s pressure on the Lebanese press as Hamadeh recounted how the regime sought to “silence free media in Lebanon.”
Following the closure of MTV in 2003, Syrian officials directed their pressure to An Nahar newspaper, of which Hariri was a shareholder.
“Syrian President Bashar Assad used to get upset with the articles of Ghassan Tueni and Samir Kassir, so he sought to close or bankrupt the daily,” he revealed.
To that end, the Syrian leadership ordered Hariri to sell his shares in the newspaper and make individuals he was affiliated with in its board to do the same, stated Hamadeh.
“The Syrian regime sought the bankruptcy of An Nahar newspaper after the closure of MTV in 2002,” he added.
The testimony then tackled Hariri’s relationship with Syrian officials between 2003 and 2004 as tensions between the two sides increased amid speculation that Lahoud’s term may be extended.
The MP spoke of a meeting Hariri had in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad from which he returned to Beirut with a bloody nose.
He revealed that the premier had left an August 2004 meeting so agitated that he banged his head against his car window in frustration.
The details of the meeting were not disclosed.
Hariri said that he felt humiliated after the meeting, added Hamadeh.
Commenting on the extension of Lahoud’s term, the MP said that Hariri had initially rejected the former army chief’s election as president in 1998, while Lahoud had later opposed a number of the premier’s development projects.
“Coming from a military background, Lahoud probably did not know how a democratic state can be managed and he was also Syria’s main man in Lebanon,” continued Hamadeh.
“Furthermore, Lahoud had always turned to Syria to impose a new cabinet and parliament in Lebanon. They were choices we opposed,” he remarked.
“In 2003, we had growing concerns that Syria would seek the extension of Lahoud’s term and we attempted to persuade Syrian officials to hold regular elections,” Hamadeh said.
“We soon however began to become aware of Syria’s rejection of the possibility of holding regular elections and that the regime sought to extend Lahoud’s term,” he added.
“The pro-Syrian media and agencies and Lahoud’s entourage made us believe that Syria only trusts the president and will not accept any alternative to the extension,” he explained.
“For his part, Hariri said he would rather cut his arm off rather than sign the decree on the extension,” he revealed.
“As a minister and lawmaker, I completely opposed the extension. The bloc I was affiliated with at the time was not on good terms with Lahoud or the Syrian regime under Assad,” Hamadeh remarked.
The extension, which took place through a constitutional amendment, occurred in September 2004.
Hamadeh recounted the details that led up to the extension and the role of the Syrian leadership and that of Ghazali in achieving its aim.
He recalled how Jumblat had rejected the extension, saying he would discuss the matter with Assad in Damascus to which Ghazali said that there will be no meeting with the Syrian president if he did not head to Syria to discuss the approval of the extension.
Head of Syrian intelligence in Beirut, Jamaa Jamaa, then contacted Jumblat after his meeting with Ghazali to inform him that his scheduled visit to Assad had been canceled, Hamadeh added.
Ghazali told Hariri that the extension “is not open to discussion”, to which the PM replied that he will not head to Syria and that he had “made up his mind on the matter”, he said.
Ghazali then suggested that Hariri head to his Damascus residence and await a meeting with Assad, which the premier rejected, stated the lawmaker.
Hamadeh also confirmed to the STL that the telephone lines of Lebanese officials were wiretapped, saying: “Our lines were tapped and we were being watched for years and years.”
He then recounted how Hariri had sacked head of his security, Ali al-Hajj, following suspicions that he was cooperating with Syrian intelligence.
He spoke of how the slain premier had set up a test to Hajj to verify if he was indeed relaying information to Syrian officials.
He gave Hajj a false piece of information and he soon received a telephone call from Ghazali to inquire about the news, which confirmed Hariri’s suspicions that Hajj was working for Syrian intelligence.
“Hajj was sacked, but he was rewarded for his service by being appointed head of the Internal Security Forces,” Hamadeh recalled.
The lawmaker began his testimony in the case of the assassination of Hariri on Monday, focusing on Syria’s influence on Lebanon and its alleged complicity in the February 2005 crime.
The MP, who was the victim of an assassination attempt in October 2004, is expected to testify for three to four days.
In addition to the lawmaker, other officials and journalists who were close to Hariri, will testify in court on the former PM’s deteriorating ties with Syria, the neighboring country’s increasing resolve to have more influence on Lebanon’s internal affairs and growing concerns by the international community regarding the foreign political pressure exerted on Lebanon.
The STL, which is based in The Hague, will also hear the evolution of the opposition movement in Lebanon in September 2004, of which Hariri was first silent and then went public. And finally Hariri’s influence as a statesman.
In the immediate aftermath of the former prime minister’s assassination in a suicide truck bombing in Beirut, suspicion fell on Syria, since Hariri had been seeking to weaken its domination of Lebanon.
Syria has denied any role in the murder, but the killing galvanized opposition to Damascus and led to huge street demonstrations dubbed the “Cedar Revolution,” which forced the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Hamadeh had a leading role along with other politicians from the March 14 alliance in organizing the rallies.
I have nothing else to add.