Getting Away With Murder?

The investigation into the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri is nearing its end—and a trial in international court looms. Insiders say the trail of evidence leads, ultimately, to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But having spent three years fearing for their lives, the investigators are now grappling with a different fear: that Western concerns about regional stability will prevent the naming of the biggest names. Inside the investigation that could blow up the Middle East
The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, at his house in the Chouf Mountains

The UN insider acknowledges that Brammertz “didn’t move as quickly as he should have,” but insists that some progress was made. In part, Brammertz’s more methodical approach was dictated by the creation of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which began gaining momentum shortly after he arrived in Beirut. Previously, it had been expected that the case would ultimately be prosecuted in a Lebanese court, using the results of the UN investigation as evidence. But after a string of killings of prominent anti-Syrian critics, the Lebanese cabinet asked the Security Council to create a UN tribunal. “There was this feeling that because of these killings, you could not safely carry out such a trial in Lebanon,” the Western diplomat explained to me. “Judges would be blown up, witnesses would be blown up.” As it became clearer that the Hariri case would be tried in an international court, with its very high evidentiary standards, it made sense “to be more discreet,” he said.

Brammertz reopened the crime-scene probe, discovered one of the suicide bomber’s teeth—Mehlis’s team had been unable to recover any of the bomber’s remains—and carried out definitive DNA testing. He also made headway, the UN insider told me, in tracing the cell-phone traffic and in naming the spotters who had tracked the route of Hariri’s convoy. And he investigated and debunked alternative theories of the crime—for instance, that Hariri had been killed by al-Qaeda. Brammertz left in January 2008, to become chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. “Brammertz was tired; he realized it was time to go,” the UN insider told me. When I asked whether Brammertz’s conclusions had differed significantly from Mehlis’s, he replied, “Mehlis’s approach was sensationalist, but what Brammertz found more deeply confirmed Mehlis’s conclusions.”

Daniel Bellemare, the third and, presumably, final investigative commissioner, began work in Beirut under heavy guard in January 2008. Bellemare, a Quebecois in his mid-50s, has spent much of his career prosecuting federal drug cases in Montreal, and has also served as Canada’s assistant deputy attorney general. “He is low-key and efficient. He doesn’t make mistakes, and he doesn’t draw attention to himself,” says Robert Doyle, his former chief of staff in Ottawa. Bellemare’s official mandate is to conclude the investigation and carry through as chief prosecutor before the tribunal.

The pace of the investigation has picked up again since Bellemare arrived, I was told by one U.S. diplomat who has met with him several times at the Monteverde Hotel. “His requests to us for [investigative] manpower, for human resources, are quite detailed. He says, ‘I need more people and I want to get them faster.’” Nonetheless, after setting up shop at the Monteverde and shutting himself off from the press, Bellemare found himself subjected to the same criticisms that had dogged Brammertz. By then, the wave of car bombings that had terrorized Lebanon’s anti-Syrian politicians and journalists had died down. Syria’s peace talks with Israel were moving apace. On July 12, 2008, in the most important sign to date of Assad’s rehabilitation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the Syrian leader to Paris at a gathering of more than 40 leaders from Mediterranean states. (Chirac, tellingly, refused to attend the summit.) “Assad is trying to present himself as a peacemaker now,” I was told by one Syrian exile who maintains close contacts in the Assad regime. “He believes that if he takes care of the politics, the tribunal will be finished.”

Is Bellemare pressing for convictions of top Syrian officials? Some believe that the matter is out of his hands: last March, King Abdullah II of Jordan was reported to be pushing for a deal with Assad—“the most astounding plea bargain of all time,” U.S. Senator Arlen Specter called it—that would grant the Syrian president immunity from prosecution in exchange for a pledge to rein in Hezbollah and Hamas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected talk of any deal, saying that immunity for Assad would damage the “integrity” of the investigation. Nonetheless, the UN insider told me that among the staff, the possibility that the tribunal could be sabotaged by key figures within the UN Security Council, or at the highest levels of Western governments, has become a constant topic of conversation. Assad’s diplomatic overtures, he said, have led some UN staff members to believe “that the investigation will be sold down the river, or it will lead to a minor official being indicted.” That view is also put forth by the Syrian exile with ties to the regime, who expects that the tribunal will be allowed to wither away. He went on to tell me: “It will have financial problems, it will have trouble bringing people to the court. You will hear, ‘This one vanished, this one was killed, this one is a liar.’ At the end, the tribunal will achieve nothing.”

Assad’s diplomatic overtures to the West could discourage witnesses from coming forward, says a former UN commission member: “If Bashar is doing well, the feeling is ‘I better invest in my future, not go against him.’” And the sheer difficulties of subpoenaing witnesses and extraditing key figures in the Syrian regime could compel the court to work out some kind of compromise. “Obviously, if it’s some Syrian colonel who’s implicated, that makes things easy,” says a Beirut-based analyst. “Sure, a colonel would never do something without approval of the highest Syrian officials, but you need a trail of evidence. The Syrian regime feels confident that if the big players do not want to make the link, and if the physical evidence stops somewhere, they will have deniability.” One figure who was deeply involved in the investigation professes no doubts about where the truth lies—but he does doubt that the tribunal is willing to venture down that road. “Everyone you are talking to will tell you that this murder would not have been possible without the consent of Assad,” he told me. “I think that after our time in Beirut, some politicians realized what continuing the investigation meant. It could lead to regime change in Syria.” Indeed, he added, “it would have to.”

Others I spoke to in Beirut and Washington say they have confidence in Bellemare and the judicial process—and that it’s too late to talk about deals. No formal mechanisms exist for slowing down or derailing the UN commission or the tribunal. And Bellemare, who has full independent authority as investigator and prosecutor, is known for his integrity; he seems unlikely to impede the investigation or trial at the behest of powerful players in Washington or Paris. “The train has left the station,” the Western diplomat told me: “The tribunal can’t be stopped.”

“I think that at the end of the day, justice will be served,” said Saad al-Hariri, the murdered man’s son and a leader of the March 14 movement, the anti-Syrian opposition that coalesced after Hariri’s murder and helped force Assad to pull all 14,000 troops out of Lebanon. Hariri told me that the three-year investigation into his father’s murder isn’t lengthy by UN standards; several comparable UN investigations have dragged on for a decade or more. “I have spoken many times to the French, to President Sarkozy when he came to Lebanon. He said there would be absolutely no playing with the tribunal, that this was something that had to happen. I have full confidence in the UN process.”

Given current U.S. strategic imperatives—keeping the region from becoming even more unstable, containing a powerful Iran, tamping down tensions over Israel and Palestine—the tribunal could hardly be coming together at a more awkward time. But just as the push to remake the Middle East damaged America’s standing and its interests, a policy that too rigidly maintains the status quo might be equally harmful. Pressing for the prosecution of only a token Syrian official or two, well down the chain of command, would have practical drawbacks, even leaving aside its moral implications. Lebanon’s pro-Western, anti-Hezbollah constituency would regard anything less than indictments of Assad and key members of his regime as a whitewash; that could plunge the country back into another round of sectarian violence, and send a message that the Middle East’s pattern of impunity remains unchanged.

Perhaps the least bad outcome, all things considered, would be a negotiated settlement, in which Assad would turn over two or three members of his inner circle—high-profile leaders whose indictment would damage the regime politically—but receive immunity for himself and his brother. In return, he would need to pledge to keep Hezbollah on a tight leash, to chart a more moderate course at home and abroad, and to make comprehensive peace with Israel. Even this outcome would carry a bad stench, and be dismissed by many as a cynical ploy. But all things considered, it might do the least harm.

One July afternoon, I drove into the Chouf Mountains, southeast of Beirut, to meet Walid Jumblatt—the Druze chieftain, a leader of the March 14 movement, and one of Rafiq al-Hariri’s closest confidantes—at his 300-year-old family palace, outside the village of Mukhtara. Now that Hariri is gone, Jumblatt is Lebanon’s most prominent and powerful anti-Syrian leader. Jumblatt had been interviewed by Mehlis in June 2005, and recounted for the commissioner a chilling conversation he’d had with Hariri after a meeting between Hariri and Bashar al-Assad in the fall of 2004. According to Jumblatt, Hariri said he’d been warned by Assad not to block an extension of the term of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Émile Lahoud, a bitter opponent of Hariri’s who had consistently blocked Hariri’s attempts to redevelop downtown Beirut. “Lahoud is me. I want to renew his mandate,” Assad had told him. “If Chirac wants me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.” Jumblatt recalled that Hariri had been “tense and disappointed. He was in a very bad position.”

After parking the car, I walked through two security checkpoints manned by Druze fighters with AK-47s, and climbed up a path to Jumblatt’s Tuscan-style villa, past landscaped gardens, courtyards, and stone-walled canals filled with clear, rushing water. Jumblatt was pacing about his spacious, memento-filled office, with French windows offering views of the Eastern Lebanon mountain range—and Syria beyond. He was still shaken in the aftermath of a military assault on Druze villages this past May by hundreds of Syrian-backed Hezbollah fighters; the Shia guerrillas had poured in from the Bekaa Valley and battled Jumblatt’s Druze militia for four days. “We lost 24 fighters,” Jumblatt told me.

The military offensive by disciplined Hezbollah forces in the mountains and against Saad al-Hariri’s ragtag street-fighters in Beirut had ended a nearly yearlong political stalemate between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian forces in the Lebanese government—a stalemate provoked largely by the creation of the UN tribunal. (Pro-Syrian politicians had boycotted the parliament and prevented the Lebanese government from authorizing the tribunal; the UN was forced to invoke its Chapter VII mandate, which obligated all signatory countries to accept the tribunal or face sanctions.) In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s military success, a new compromise president was named, a Christian general named Michel Suleiman—and Hezbollah won veto power in the parliament. In a stunning display of realpolitik, both the U.S. and France welcomed the break in the deadlock. Jumblatt saw it as another ominous sign that Syria and Assad were being welcomed back into the world community.

“I do believe the U.S. is using the tribunal as a bargaining chip with the Syrian regime,” Jumblatt told me as he gazed out the window toward Syria. Jumblatt had been one of the last people to see Hariri alive; “he believed he was going to be killed,” the chieftain said. Leaning back in a leather chair, hands folded in his lap, Jumblatt looked at once pensive and resigned. The democratic, pro-Western Lebanon he had campaigned for had proved to be a chimera; and the campaign to avenge his closest colleague seemed to be collapsing as well. He said he expected the tribunal to end with some sort of a deal along the lines of that in the Lockerbie case: the regime of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, was accused of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people. After intense negotiations with Western powers, Qaddafi finally handed over two low-level intelligence agents to face charges in a Scottish court set up in the Netherlands at Camp Zeist, just a few miles from the court in which Hariri’s murder case will be tried. The same kind of arrangement “would be a face-saving solution for Assad,” Jumblatt told me.

Jumblatt led the way into the courtyard, where a Harley Davidson motorcycle was parked in the shade of a eucalyptus tree; he often takes spins through the Chouf Mountains, setting aside for a time the responsibility of leading a small religious minority in still-factionalized Lebanon, as well as directing the main anti-Hezbollah, anti-Syrian political movement in the country. “You cannot talk to dictators,” Jumblatt told me as he put on his leather motorcycle jacket and mounted the bike. “You cannot appease dictators, like Sarkozy is doing. You can only kill them—like they have been killing us ... But nobody at this moment is willing to make the Syrian regime fall down.”

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Joshua Hammer is a writer based in Berlin. He is working on a book about a colonial-era rebellion and reprisal in southwest Africa.

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