By Michael Young
Syria has vowed to soon release the results of its inquiry into the assassination of Hizbullah official Imad Mughniyeh. However, there is increasing likelihood that the findings, rather than explain what happened, will become a weapon in the regional struggle between Syria, Iran and their Lebanese allies on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan to a lesser extent, and the March 14 coalition on the other.
In the past week since Mughniyeh’s funeral, unidentified sources in Beirut and Damascus have been feverishly spinning media coverage of the killing. The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, was the first to identify an Arab angle in the Mughniyeh affair, quoting someone as saying that among those arrested by the Syrian authorities were “non-civilian elements of Arab nationality.” Syria’s daily Al-Watan, which is owned by the powerful cousin of President Bashar Assad, Rami Makhlouf, also cited a source as mentioning an Arab connection.
In the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Aam, a source close to Hizbullah was quoted as saying that the Mughniyeh hit was “Palestinian-Israeli,” using American technology and financed by an unidentified Gulf Arab official. Another Kuwaiti daily, Al-Siyassa, which is hostile to Damascus, wrote that Mughniyeh had been residing in an apartment building belonging to a business partner of Makhlouf – in effect linking the late Hizbullah official to people at the heart of Syria’s political and economic elite.
Perhaps most disturbing for what may lie ahead, however, was a report in Al-Haqiqa, the publication of Nizar Nayouf, a Syrian opposition figure. Nayouf was for years brutalized by Syria’s regime, before moving to France. However, most observers of Syrian affairs believe his publication is often used by the Assad regime as a conduit for disinformation, or for sending political messages. According to a Syrian source cited by Al-Haqiqa, the Mughniyeh investigation may accuse “official or semi-official Lebanese parties … allied with [the government]” of having participated in the Mughniyeh operation. The paper suggested investigators might also identify Walid Jumblatt, or more specifically his alleged security chief, Hisham Nasreddine, as having played a role in the killing.
The “official or semi-official” parties the source refers to is almost certainly the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces – essentially the state security apparatus most loyal to March 14. A key objective of Syria and the opposition in the negotiations over a new government has been to ensure that the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Information Department, is taken out of the hands of the parliamentary majority. If the information in Al-Haqiqa becomes the basis of an official Syrian charge, the aim may be to advance this agenda. As for Jumblatt, no one will seriously believe the Druze leader has the capacity to eliminate so secretive as figure as Mughniyeh. However, if the Syrians do level such an accusation, it may exacerbate tension on the ground between Jumblatt’s supporters and Hizbullah, without the latter being able to express doubt in the Syrian conclusions. The party has little margin of maneuver vis-a-vis Damascus, and Iran has reportedly indicated it wants no quarrel with the Assad regime over Mughniyeh. Hizbullah has blamed Israel for the assassination, but its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has also described March 14 as having sided with Israel. If the Syrians play on that theme, Nasrallah may find himself tossed back into the unforgiving alleyways of inter-Lebanese conflict.
The deepening animosity between Syria and Saudi Arabia might mean the Mughniyeh investigation is carried even further to implicate some Arab states. The fear is that Syria would do such a thing to gain leverage and force leading Arab heads to state to attend the Arab League summit scheduled for late March in Damascus, therefore guaranteeing that the event will be a success. The only problem is that the absence of a prior solution in Lebanon will almost certainly mean a failed summit. Assad will probably not bring the Saudis or anyone else to his gathering through intimidation, let alone through a politicized investigation.
Where would Hizbullah stand on this? One message in the Mughniyeh assassination was that while the party was stuck in the viper’s nest of Lebanese politics, someone, probably Israel, scored a devastating goal against it. Nasrallah has always tried to keep domestic Lebanese affairs separate from the conflict with Israel, to protect his military autonomy. Whenever the two were somehow mixed, Hizbullah lost ground, most notably after the 2006 summer war, which many Lebanese viewed as unnecessary. That’s why Nasrallah cannot find it especially desirable to watch Syria twist the Mughniyeh affair into a new basis for Lebanese strife.
The same holds for Syria’s conflict with major Arab states. At a time when Iran is improving its relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there is little real advantage to Hizbullah in seeing Damascus manipulate Mughniyeh’s death to score points in its dispute with Riyadh and Cairo. All that would prove, again, is that Hizbullah is cannon fodder for the Assad regime, a reality that has already damaged Hizbullah’s reputation inside Lebanon. Nasrallah has always tried to position Hizbullah as an Arab nationalist organization waging a regional struggle in Lebanon and Palestine. Being used as a stick against the Arab states would only lead to its being demoted to the status of sectarian Shiite group threatening Arab interests.
Recent events have shown that Hizbullah, even though many publicists will dutifully underline its independence from Syria and Iran, is in fact mostly a prisoner of Iranian and Syrian priorities. The Mughniyeh investigation will be an opportunity to test this proposition once more. Perhaps this time Hizbullah will manage to avoid becoming another utensil in regional Arab antagonism that is bound to get worse.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.