Will Lebanon finally gather the strength to oust Hezbollah?

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon verdict, though disappointing to many, has given more evidence that the Iran-backed militants have to go

FILE - In this Feb. 17, 2008 file photo, Hezbollah militants stand at attention during a memorial service for Hezbollah's assassinated top commander Imad Mughniyeh in his home village of Tair Debba, south Lebanon. As the United Nations prepares to renew the mandate of its peacekeeping operation in southern Lebanon, Israel is working with Security Council members to push for tough changes in the way the force deals with the Hezbollah militant group, Israeli officials said Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.  (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill, File)
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Now that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has ruled that a terrorist with the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah was responsible for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the challenge for Lebanon is to end the malign influence Iran continues to exert over its political system.

There will be many in Lebanon who will be profoundly disappointed at the tribunal's judgment;  it found only one of the four defendants guilty and no evidence linking Hezbollah's leadership or the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad to the atrocity.

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, reacts as he leaves the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) at Leidschendam on August 18, 2020, after the expected verdict on the 2005 murder of his father former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri.  A UN-backed tribunal on found a member of the Hezbollah Shiite movement guilty over the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri but cleared three other suspects after a years-long trial. / AFP / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD
Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, reacts as he leaves the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague, on August 18, 2020. AFP

On one level it is perhaps unsurprising that the tribunal, which has cost a staggering $1 billion, reached such an unsatisfactory outcome. Both the Hezbollah leadership and the authorities in Damascus refused to co-operate in any meaningful sense, so investigators were denied access to evidence that might have resulted in a very different conclusion.

The extent of Hezbollah's hostility to the tribunal was reflected in the fact that none of the four indicted suspects were made available to it.  The entire trial was held in their absence,  meaning it is highly unlikely that Salim Ayyash, who was found guilty, will ever serve a moment of the sentence the tribunal is expected to hand down on Friday.

Even so, as far as the hard-pressed Lebanese are concerned, there are some positives that can be taken from the judgment  For one, an internationally recognised body has publicly ruled that a Hezbollah operative committed the cold-bloodied murder of a democratically-elected Lebanese politician.

Ayyash, it should be said, is no ordinary Hezbollah operative. He happens to be the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, who helped to establish Hezbollah's military wing. Mughniyeh was also the notorious  architect responsible for, among many other atrocities, the  lorry bomb attacks on the US embassy in Beirut in the early 1980s.

Mughniyeh was a constant presence in both Tehran, where he worked closely with senior members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani,  and Damascus, where he lived with his family until he was killed by a joint CIA-Mossad operation in 2008.

Although less is known about the 56-year-old Ayyash’s role in Hezbollah, the fact that he was a close family associate of Mughniyeh suggests he will be well-versed in the relationships between Hezbollah and the regimes in Syria and Iran. The latter is so intimate that Hezbollah’s every move is closely coordinated with the IRGC.

Ayyash was also related by marriage to Mustafa Badreddine, another senior Hezbollah commander who was originally charged by the tribunal alongside him, although those charges were later dropped when Badreddine was killed fighting for the Assad regime in Syria in 2016.

Therefore, even though many will be disappointed with the tribunal’s overall findings, there is nevertheless enough material that can be drawn from Ayyash’s involvement in the murder to raise serious questions about whether Hezbollah should be allowed to participate in Lebanon’s political future.

Hezbollah’s ability to influence key political decisions in Lebanon is due primarily to the accord it reached with Lebanese President Michel Aoun in the year after Hariri’s murder.

But as Bahaa Hariri, the eldest son of the murdered former prime minister, told me when I met him in London earlier this week, the tribunal’s verdict ought to result in Hezbollah’s complete removal from Lebanese politics.

A United Nations peacekeeper (UNIFIL) stands near a poster depicting Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in Adaisseh village, near the Lebanese-Israeli border, Lebanon August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Karamallah Daher
Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah has been depicted in a poster in the Lebanese village of Adaisseh, is increasingly entrenched in Lebanon's politics. Reuters
An internationally recognised body has publicly ruled that a Hezbollah operative committed the cold-bloodied murder of a democratically-elected Lebanese politician

“Hezbollah has no place in Lebanon’s future,” said Mr Hariri, who is campaigning for a new Lebanese constitution aimed at healing the country’s long-standing sectarian divisions. He also wants an end to the ability of countries like Iran to control Lebanon’s political destiny.

“Hezbollah cannot and does not do anything without the say-so of its foreign masters. The new Lebanon must be a neutral country. The only way for this to happen is for Hezbollah to be removed. They’ve had their chance and, if they haven’t delivered for Lebanon so far, they will not in future. Nobody with blood on their hands can hold political office in Lebanon.”

The challenge now for Mr Hariri and the thousands of Lebanese protesters who have taken to the streets to protest at the Lebanese government’s disastrous handling of the economy, as well as its complicity in the recent devastating explosion at Beirut port, is how to achieve their goal of ending Hezbollah’s involvement in running the country.

On a domestic level, the country might appear to be in too weak a position to challenge Hezbollah, especially in the Shiite heartlands in the south of the country. Iran, despite its own financial difficulties, continues to provide financial and military assistance to the organisation, which means that any attempt by the Lebanese authorities to challenge its dominance could lead to further bloodshed.

Even so, there are encouraging signs that the Lebanese people have finally had enough of Iran's unwelcome interference in their affairs, so the widespread clamour for a root and branch reform of the Lebanese political system could prove to be unstoppable.

Moreover, the tribunal verdict, at the very least, should finally persuade Mr Aoun, who has previously supported Hezbollah’s participation in the coalition government, that it is no longer in his country’s interests to tolerate an organisation that is associated with the assassination of one of its most admired, democratically-elected representatives.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor