A Hezbollah flag flutters in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, Lebanon July 28, 2020. Foto: Aziz Taher / REUTERS / NTB scanpix
The conviction of a senior Hezbollah terrorist for assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has provided the hard-pressed Lebanese people with incontrovertible proof of the malign influence Iran exerts over their political system.
Following an investigation that has lasted for more than a decade and cost a staggering $1 billion, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the UN-sponsored body responsible for trying four Hezbollah suspects accused of murdering Mr Hariri in a car bomb attack in Beirut in 2005, has finally passed its judgement.
The tribunal concluded that Salim Jamil Ayyash, a 56-year-old senior commander with Hezbollah, was guilty on all counts of participating in the car bombing, in which 21 other people were killed.
There was a degree of frustration in Lebanon that the Tribunal was not able to reach guilty verdicts on the three other Hezbollah defendants who were also tried for Mr Hariri’s murder.
One crucial factor that contributed to the Tribunal’s decision was the refusal of both the Iranian-backed Hezbollah leadership, as well as the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in neighbouring Syria, to cooperate with the investigation.
As a consequence, the Tribunal was unable to find any evidence that the leadership of Hezbollah and Syria were directly complicit in Mr Hariri’s assassination, even though most Lebanese believe it was carried out in reprisal for his attempts to end Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanese politics.
The refusal of Hezbollah and Syria to cooperate also meant that the trial had to be conducted in absentia, as none of the accused was prepared to attend the hearing, so it is highly unlikely that Ayyash will ever serve his sentence, even though he has been found guilty of carrying out one of the most devastating crimes in modern Lebanese history.
Nonetheless, the fact that a senior Hezbollah commander has been found guilty of murdering one of Lebanon’s most prominent democratically-elected politicians raises serious questions about the future role of Hezbollah, as well as the organisation’s Iranian and Syrian backers, in Lebanese politics.
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Speaking shortly after the verdict was announced, Bahaa Hariri, the eldest son of the murdered prime minister, told me that the conclusion of the trial should result in Hezbollah’s complete exclusion from Lebanese politics.
«Hezbollah has no place in Lebanon’s future,» said Mr Hariri, who has launched a campaign for a new Lebanese constitution designed to end the country’s long-standing sectarian divisions. He is also insistent that malign powers such as Iran should no longer control Lebanon’s destiny.
«Hezbollah cannot and does not do anything without the say-so of its foreign masters,» he added. «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 other Lebanese of a moderate political persuasion is to mount an effective challenge against Hezbollah’s dominant position in Lebanon. It is a move that would present a significant challenge given the enormous investment Iran has made over several decades in building Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure, especially in southern Lebanon, where the militia poses a constant threat to the security of Israel.
Mr Hariri’s campaign for Lebanon to end the interference of Iran and Hezbollah in the country’s political system will certainly be helped by the damning material that emerged from the trial about the organisation’s links with Syria and Iran.
It was revealed, for example, that Ayyash, apart from being a senior Hezbollah commander, is also the brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyeh, the notorious Hezbollah terrorist mastermind responsible for, among many other atrocities, the truck bomb attacks on the US Embassy and Marine headquarters in Beirut in the early 1980s.
Mugniyeh, who was instrumental in establishing Hezbollah’s military wing, was a constant presence in both Tehran, where he worked closely with senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and Damascus, where he lived with his family until he was killed by an Israeli missile strike in 2008.
In addition, Ayyash was related by marriage to Mustafa Badreddine, another senior Hezbollah commander who was originally charged alongside Ayyash and the other Hezbollah defendants by the tribunal, although the charges were later dropped after Badreddine was killed fighting for the Assad regime in Syria in 2016.
The man convicted of Mr Hariri’s murder, therefore, is no ordinary Hezbollah commander, but someone who operates at the organisation’s highest levels, a fact that should help enormously in Lebanon’s coming battle to rid itself of the malign influence that Hezbollah and its Iranian paymasters have exercised over the country’s fortunes.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.