Arrest warrants show renewed Syrian ambition

The Lebanese are involved in an affair that has turned inconvenient, to say the least.

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The Lebanese are involved in an affair that has turned inconvenient, to say the least. When the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was formed five years ago, it was in response to the outpouring of grief and anger after the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. That same spirit of national unity drove the Syrians out of the country after nearly 30 years of occupation. What a difference half a decade makes. Far from being in the cross-hairs of an international investigation, Damascus's influence is once again in ascendancy. On Sunday, a Syrian court issued arrest warrants for 33 people involved in the tribunal, including Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who formerly led the investigation.

It was a gesture of defiance more than a credible prosecution - Syrian judgments carry little legal weight on Lebanese soil and Interpol is highly unlikely to take action. But there are valid doubts when the tribunal, which Mr Mehlis said years ago would target "high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials", now appears to be on the back foot. There was an attempt to downplay the arrest warrants, although the widely held view is that they are another form of political pressure on Beirut. "I do not want to engage in arguments that might harm Syrian-Lebanese relations," said Marwan Hamadeh, an MP who was named by the Syrian court. "If these arrest warrants are a message implying to cancel the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri cannot do so."

Beirut may have called for the investigation, but the tribunal has since taken on a life of its own. Mr Hariri, meanwhile, has retreated from accusing Syria of his father's murder to embracing President Bashar Assad in Damascus. The expectation, voiced by Syrian and pro-Hizbollah supporters, is that members of the Shiite party will be indicted by the tribunal. It is a curious certainty when a decision may be weeks away. Hizbollah has said it will try and block funding for the tribunal; whether Mr Hariri has the ability - or the will - to push it through remains to be seen.

There is little doubt that the prime minister has been backed in a corner, and not only because Hizbollah is the most effective military force in the country since the 2006 war with Israel. Lebanon has long been a proxy battleground for regional powers that is fortunately only political in the present form. After five years, it is clear that Syria has out-manoeuvred its opponents. It's also clear that Damascus remains determined that it, not Beirut, will call the shots in Lebanon.