A political crisis in Beirut following a deadly shooting last month has revived memories of one of the most controversial chapters in Lebanon’s post-war history, when a court imprisoned a prominent opponent of the Syrian regime.
When Hezbollah-backed political foes of Druze leader Walid Joumblatt suggested he was somehow involved in a firefight last month that killed two bodyguards of a pro-Hezbollah Druze minister and alleged it to be an assassination attempt, observers recalled the 1994 war crimes trial of Christian leader Samir Geagea.
Mr Geagea became the only figure from Lebanon’s civil war to be tried for his role in the conflict. He received multiple death sentences, later commuted to life and ended up spending 11 years in prison. He was only released when Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was forced to withdraw his forces from the country in the face of international pressure and mass protests in 2005.
That trial was hugely influenced by the Damascus government, at a time when it had 35,000 troops in Lebanon. Today, the Syrian regime is once again emboldened, as Iranian and Russian support helps turn the tide of the country’s eight-year-long civil war.
Across the border, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry fell to Christian allies of Shiite militia-cum-political party Hezbollah, a friend of Damascus, after a new cabinet was formed in January, intensifying a clampdown on critics of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. The crackdown forced Fidaa Itani, a prominent Lebanese investigative journalist to flee to London to escape what turned out to be a four-month jail sentence.
Much more could be at stake for Mr Joumblatt, who has survived at least one assassination attempt and is used to navigating the tough school of Lebanese politics. Except that, this time, Hezbollah has been buoyed by a deeper reach into the country’s security apparatus and state organisations.
One of Mr Joumblatt’s confidants, who asked not to be named, said Mr Joumblatt is not discounting the possibility of a similar campaign to the one that once silenced Mr Geagea. Bringing down Mr Joumblatt would increase the influence of Hezbollah, and by extension Damascus and Tehran.
According to Fadi Ahmar, assistant professor at Lebanon’s Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, “Behind every move against Joumblatt we have seen lately, Hezbollah looms. The Syrian regime is not far either.”
The crisis is the latest pitting Hezbollah, the only non-state group in Lebanon allowed to bear arms after the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, against weakened political opponents who have renounced violence but are trying to stave off what they regard as renewed vassalage to the Syrian regime.
Although a small country, the direction of Lebanon’s internal politics usually reflects the wider regional, and even international, balance of power.
With the outbreak of a civil war in 1975, Lebanon became “the chessboard on which each outside power tried to checkmate the other,” Lebanese banker Joe Sarrough once said.
At one point, the Syrian regime, the United States, France and Israel, all had troops in the country during the civil war. Saddam Hussein supported Michel Aoun, the current president who is now friendly to Damascus. Not to be outdone, Iran, as well as Damascus, was instrumental in founding Hezbollah in the 1980s. Among the foreign militias were the Palestine Liberation Organisation factions and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group outlawed in Turkey. Emerging relatively unscathed in what became a swap for foreign powers was late Syrian dictator Hafez Al Assad, supported militias from all sects, even ones that were fighting each other.
“We are friends to all in Lebanon,” the late Assad once said.
A shadow of this international battleground remains on Lebanon. Hezbollah acts as a regional spearhead in support of Iran. France, meanwhile, is leading aid efforts to rescue the struggling economy.
Key players on this chessboard, Mr Geagea and Mr Joumblatt, were instrumental in shaping Lebanon’s history of bloodshed and relative peace since the end of the civil war in 1990.
Although not as powerful as they once were, they remain politically significant, partly because of their opposition to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, at a time when many see Lebanon as under threat of renewed subjugation to Damascus.
Though Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus is seeking to increase its influence in the country through its ally Hezbollah. Today, critics such as Messrs Joumblatt and Geagea fear a return to an era where all opposition to Assad family influence is silenced.
But figures like them remain vulnerable. Lebanon’s post-war era has been marked by political assassinations of those who opposed Damascus or Hezbollah.
Standing today as the most prominent survivor is the enigmatic Joumblatt, whose acute political radar-guided shifting alliances, which have preserved the interests of the Druze, allowing the small religious minority political relevance larger than the community’s size may suggest. While no census has been conducted in Lebanon since the 1930s because of sectarian sensitivities, the Druze, one of 18 recognised communities, account for around 5 per cent of a population estimated at 6 million.
Mr Joumblatt, 69, is one of few politicians in Lebanon whose positions cut across sectarian lines, from his attempts to protect what is left of Lebanon’s environment – which earned him the loathing of businessmen linked to Hezbollah and to President Assad’s associates – to criticising widespread bigotry towards Syrian refugees.
Both he and Mr Geagea, also in his 60s, hail from the mountains. Mr Joumblatt is the son of the monumental Lebanese politician Kamal Joumblatt, from Al Moukhtara in the Chouf mountains south of Beirut, a hereditary seat of Druze leadership. Mr Geagea is from Bsharri in northern Lebanon, hometown of the famed writer Gibran Khalil Gibran.
Both studied at the American University of Beirut. Mr Joumblatt read politics, and Mr Geagea medicine. Mr Joumblatt carries the title of Beik, which harks to Ottoman feudal times, while Mr Geagea is known as Al Hakeem, which refers to his medical degree but can also mean “the wise one”.
Otherwise, Mr Joumblatt and Mr Geagea are a world apart politically, with Mr Geagea’s current anti-refugee rhetoric contributing to a violent backlash against ordinary Syrians.
But the lessons of the Geagea trial, mainly the propensity of Lebanon’s judicial system to perform a show trial under political pressure, are difficult to ignore for a seasoned politician such as Mr Joumblatt. Like a quarter of a century ago, the geopolitics have turned once again in favour of the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies, with current events exposing Lebanon’s thinly concealed fault lines and revealing how easily Lebanon could slide back into conflict.
Today, Hezbollah is perhaps more powerful than at any time since its founding in the 1980s. Its patron, Iran, is ascendant regionally and neighbouring ally Mr Assad looks set to survive the civil war. As in the past, Hezbollah had few reservations about the means it uses to solidify its power.
The recent incident involving Mr Joumblatt is illustrative of how the group attempts to pull strings in Lebanon, without direct involvement in events.
In late June, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah ally and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, planned to visit an area in the Chouf. The move was apparently to strengthen his standing among Christian co-religionists, many of whom Mr Joumblatt drove out from the Chouf during the civil war and only returned in recent years.
The trip was a challenge to Druze communities fiercely opposed to Hezbollah and Mr Assad, and Mr Bassil backed down. Instead a junior Druze minister, Saleh Al Gharib – who is a rival to Mr Joumblatt and backed by Hezbollah – went to the area. What happened next is disputed, but shooting began and two of Mr Al Gharib’s bodyguards were killed. Mr Joumblatt later organised the handover of two suspects to authorities and demanded the other side do likewise.
What became known as the Al Basateen incident followed an earlier killing of a Joumblatt supporter by a pro-Hezbollah Druze gunman last year. In that case, the suspect fled to Syria. Mr Joumblatt has called on the Lebanese judiciary to prosecute both incidents.
But Lebanon’s Justice Ministry, a post once held by Mr Joumblatt’s ally Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, is now headed by an ally of Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil.
Now Mr Joumblatt’s supporters fear the Druze leader could be framed for the Basateen incident.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made it clear in an interview last week that after his group’s intervention in Syria helped prop up the Damascus regime, the Shiite organisation now sees its main critic, Mr Joumblatt, as a target, claiming the Druze leader has slighted Hezbollah since 2005.
Of particular ire is Mr Joumblatt’s repeated criticism of Hezbollah’s self-declared right to bear arms, which gives the group power no other Lebanese movement enjoys.
“He is the one who wronged us when he talked about the weapons of treachery,” Mr Nasrallah told Hezbollah’s Al Manar television, referring to Mr Joumblatt’s 2005 description of Hezbollah’s arms.
Hezbollah’s backing for Mr Al Gharib is part of a strategy to split Mr Joumblatt’s support base, Mr Ahmar of the Holy Spirit University told The National. “Hezbollah is aiming hard at Joumblatt’s core this time,” he said.
Hezbollah and its allies in government want a special state body they have large sway over to prosecute suspects in the Basateen incident, which Hezbollah’s allies claim was an assassination attempt against Mr Al Gharib.
That body, called the Judicial Council, has a history of politically charged proceedings, in 1994 it was the one responsible for Mr Geagea’s imprisonment over civil war crimes.
Now Hezbollah is trying to capitalise on an ally holding the Justice Ministry to call for the case to be passed to the Judicial Council for review. While Mr Bassil also wants this, his (until now) good working relations with Mr Hariri could complicate such a move.
Even amid a brutal civil war, Mr Geagea was renowned as ruthless as he rose within Maronite Christian factions implicated in mass killings of Palestinians. They also turned their guns against each other in an internecine war that hastened Syrian regime dominance.
Near the start of the war in 1975, there were clashes between Maronite factions and Palestinian guerrillas who had moved to Lebanon after taking part five years earlier in a shorter civil war in Jordan, although part of Lebanon’s societal and political problems date back to before the arrival of the Palestinians.
Early on, the late Hafez Al Assad showed an interest in shaping the outcome of the war.
The older Al Assad, who died in 2000, sent forces to Lebanon in 1976 in support of the Maronites, partly to undermine PLO leader Yasser Arafat and seize control over his organisation.
But then Assad later turned on the Maronites, who welcomed an Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 although it failed to impose a government friendly to Israel.
The 1989 Taif agreement that helped end the Lebanese civil war tinkered with the country’s quota system, under which representatives of numerous sects share power. It reduced the Maronite influence in favour of more Muslim representation. But it also indirectly contributed towards turning post-war Lebanon into a satellite of the Syrian regime.
During the war, Mr Joumblatt and Mr Geagea were foes. But afterwards, they co-operated to back the small but growing supporters of an independent Lebanon that culminated in the 2005 Cedar revolution. They then carried this into a successful but relatively brief March 14 alliance (named after the biggest rally against Syria in 2005 that estimates suggest well over 1 million people attended) with others attempting to curtail the Syrian regime.
But many in the alliance or with similar views of Lebanese independence paid a heavy price for opposing the Syrian regime. In years leading up to and after 2005, a string of anti-Syrian journalists, writers, academics and politicians – including the ex-prime minister Rafic Hariri whose murder on February 14, 2005, sparked the mass protests – were assassinated.
Years earlier in 1977, Mr Joumblatt’s father, Kamal Joumblatt, was also assassinated. Two Syrian agents suspected in the killing have never faced justice.
Mr Geagea alone continued to vocally oppose Syrian involvement in Lebanon long after others had acquiesced, making him a key target of Hafez Al Assad.
At the behest of Damascus, Lebanon’s judiciary singled out Mr Geagea for prosecution over political killings committed during the war, despite the 1991 General Amnesty law passed by parliament to prevent people being tried for crimes committed during the conflict. The case became Lebanon’s trial of the century, though the result was a foregone conclusion.
Mr Geagea was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment, for ordering four assassinations. Among them was a 1987 helicopter bombing that killed Sunni Prime Minister Rashid Karami and the 1990 killing of Dany Chamoun, a Maronite figure from the Chouf who by the end of the civil war had reconciled with Mr Joumblatt, and most of Chamoun’s family.
While few had doubted Mr Geagea’s willingness during the war to use violence to achieve his goals, Amnesty International said his trial was “seriously flawed”. The evidence was thin and largely circumstantial.
But, by then, international powers had little incentive to challenge Hafez Al Assad, being more interested in promoting negotiations between the late dictator and Israel.
Mr Geagea was imprisoned for 11 years in a windowless cell three floors below ground at the Defence Ministry in the Yarzeh hills overlooking Beirut. He was only released as Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, under international pressure that followed the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafic Hariri, father of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Hezbollah was suspected of the killing but has refused to hand over four of its operatives to an international tribunal in The Hague set up to pursue the case.
Mr Joumblatt meanwhile manoeuvred the post-war environment with prudence, becoming minister of the displaced following the Taif agreement. In 1991, as the amnesty law was passed, he spoke out, arguing that every major political figure, himself no exception, should be investigated for war crimes.
Mr Joumblatt may no longer be able to maintain such candour, although he remains well connected in European capitals and, to some degree, in Moscow. And, inside Lebanon, President Al Assad does not have the same reach since withdrawing forces in 2005. But the risks remain.
The confidant of Mr Joumblatt, who asked to remain anonymous, said Mr Joumblatt is mindful he could face a politically motivated prosecution such as that which jailed Mr Geagea.
Mr Ahmar of the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik said Mr Joumblatt has met with ambassadors in Beirut to seek support and has backing from Prime Minister Hariri.
“I think the crisis has strengthened the bonds between Joumblatt and Hariri,” Mr Ahmar said.
In particular, he said Mr Hariri’s support while he remains prime minister makes it difficult for Hezbollah’s ally to deploy the judiciary against Mr Joumblatt.
But in a sign of the seriousness of the ongoing crisis, the Lebanese cabinet – fragmented along pro- and anti-Hezbollah lines – has not held its weekly meetings since the shooting on June 30.
Mr Geagea’s Lebanese Forces is represented by four ministers out of 30 and has accused Hezbollah and its allies of withholding the quorum unless they get to dictate the course of events in the aftermath of the shooting.
But the divisions in cabinet run deeper than just this incident. For example, when the Cabinet was formed on January 31 this year, Mr Geagea’s Lebanese Forces had appointed May Chidiac for the post of minister of state for administrative development. Ms Chidiac was one of the country’s most famous journalists and repeatedly called on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon. In September 2005, a one-pound explosive device hidden in her car detonated as she got in. Although she survived the assassination attempt, she lost a leg and it left her with other lasting injuries. Now she represents Mr Geagea in a cabinet alongside Hezbollah and others who back Damascus.
While Mr Joumblatt may be safe for now, history has shown the expendability of non-violent politicians in Lebanon if they lose the support of powerful backers or cross Hezbollah.
As Hezbollah and its allies sharpen their knives for the Mr Joumblatt, Mr Geagea has remained quiet, perhaps due to the memory of his own incarceration, and his long and blood-soaked history shared with Mr Joumblatt.
Mr Geagea could also become a target again as Hezbollah shows no signs it will give up on the pursuit of its critics, with little regard for the associated violence.