Rafiq Hariri tribunal: Was the former Lebanon PM's assassination the work of Syria's President Assad?

A special tribunal at The Hague has heard dramatic new evidence apparently linking the Syrian regime with the 2005 killing of Lebanon's former leader – and it concurs chillingly with what Robert Fisk was told at the time

Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, was describing the last days of his friend, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. “We sat in the garden, it was a summer day and it was very warm. He looked upset, angry, sad.

His attitude was strange. He said that Bashar al-Assad told him: ‘Lahoud [the then pro-Syrian President] is with me... I want you to extend [his term of office] and if Chirac wants to get me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon, I will destroy Lebanon. As for Walid Jumblatt, the same as he has a Druze community, I also have a Druze community’.”

Jumblatt’s evidence last week at special tribunal in The Hague into Hariri’s assassination on Saint Valentine’s Day 10 years ago has made gripping television drama in a nation where no political murders have ever been solved in the country’s  69-year history.

The Lebanese – firm believers in plots and conspiracies – have stayed away from work, or simply sat in their offices and stared at the television to witness this theatre of the macabre. The Lebanese press is still debating it all. Anyone who lived through those days has his own personal memories. Me too. The Lebanese have been waiting for years for proof that Assad killed the ex-Prime Minister who demanded freedom from Syrian occupation.

But that’s not quite what they got. There’s little doubt that Jumblatt’s account was consistent. Only days after he received Assad’s warning from Hariri, a frightened Jumblatt repeated it to me in 2005, in the garden of his own home. Assad’s reference to “his” own Druze referred to the minority community in Syria which gave its allegiance to the Assad regime rather than to Jumblatt’s. “He was warning me that ‘his Druze’ could kill me,” Jumblatt told me then. A few days ago, Jumblatt called again on the Druze of Syria to join the “resistance” against Assad.

Jumblatt’s message to the tribunal was that anyone who crossed the Assad regime – that of father Hafez as well as son Bashar – or who became an embarrassment to the regime, paid the penalty. His own father Kemal, he said, was murdered on Syrian orders in 1977. Indeed, I have in my library a book signed by Walid Jumblatt with a dedication that his father died “in the Syrian Anschluss” of Lebanon – a direct comparison between Assad’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976 and Hitler’s 1938 Austrian coup. Jumblatt listed the names of the departed who he believed were involved in Hariri’s demise:

1. Ghazi Kanaan, head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon for well over a decade. In Beirut, he once showed me the one-way telephone upon which only Hafez al-Assad could call him – he could not call the Syrian President. He loved Lebanon, he said (and later bought into a major Lebanese mobile phone company). Kanaan was interviewed by the UN tribunal about Hariri’s death but denied all knowledge of the murder. Yet in October 2005 – now Syrian Interior Minister – he blew his brains out (or had them blown out for him) in his ministerial office.

The second-in-command of Syria’s military intelligence was to tell me later that Kanaan had shot himself in the mouth and that “his own people (Alawite bodyguards) were guarding the door”, after writing a letter to his wife in which he said that what he was going to do was “for Syria”.  An hour earlier, he had called a Lebanese television station and told the reporter that he thought “this is the last testament I will give”.

2. Major-General Jameh Jameh, a senior military intelligence official in Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, who was killed in the rebel-surrounded city of Deir Ezzor in October 2013. He was “martyred while carrying out his national duties”, according to the regime’s almost Rommel-like report on his death. But Syrian army commanders insist that he was indeed shot by a sniper during a battle with Jabhat al-Nusra and Free Syrian Army rebels.

3. Kassem Shawkat, deputy minister of defence and Bashar’s own brother-in-law. Implicated in the Hariri murder plot by the UN, he was killed in a massive bomb explosion at military headquarters during a rebel attack on central Damascus in July 2012. He was involved in the Hama massacre of Sunni Muslim rebels by military forces commanded by Bashar’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad in 1982. Rifaat now denies the slaughter. Shawkat denied all knowledge of the Hariri killing. And he was also the special co-ordinator with US intelligence in Syria after the September 2011 attacks.

4. Rustum Ghazaleh, another former intelligence boss in Lebanon – I once asked him for an interview in the middle of a Beirut street and he screamed “No!” at me as his four bodyguards pointed their rifles in my direction – who was reportedly beaten up by bodyguards of a fellow intelligence officer in Damascus and died of a “heart attack” on 24 April this year.

Walid Jumblatt shed no tears for these men in The Hague. Ghazi Kanaan, he testified, had told him when he left Lebanon that “I would like you to know who the Assads are”, a phrase he recalled when Kanaan killed himself.  Kanaan, Jumblatt said at the time, “did well by committing suicide”. But asked for factual evidence that the Syrians killed Hariri, Jumblatt told the Hague tribunal that “at no point did I pretend or claim that I have any pieces of evidence, any proof, regarding the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. I’m giving a political testament.”  Nor did he suggest that he believed that the Shia Muslim Hezbollah members – charged by the tribunal – were involved. 

Lebanese viewers of these hearings cynically noted how the trial judge ruled out of order any discussion of the actions of Israel – which has killed an awful lot of people in Lebanon – during the hearing. And they listened, appalled, to a phone recording of a fearful Hariri telling the current Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, how physically sick he felt, arguing that he would do whatever Bashar asked of him.

Jumblatt insisted that he and Hariri did not support the UN resolution calling for the Syrian army’s withdrawal from Lebanon, which was supported by then French President Jacques Chirac – hence Bashar’s reported reference to the former French President. They did not want Hezbollah disarmed, as the UN resolution stipulated. They wanted a return to the original end-of-civil-war Taif agreement, Jumblatt said, which called for a gradual departure of Syrian troops.  Bashar apparently did not believe this.

Jumblatt, who brought his wife and retainers to Holland to hear his testimony, accepted that he was forced to be friendly towards Bashar al-Assad after originally condemning him as “a whale vomited out of the ocean” – but then fell out with him once more. Hariri, Jumblatt said, told him in his last days that the Syrians would either try to kill him or Jumblatt himself.

Days after Hariri’s death, a shaken Jumblatt confessed to me that “I was at my home (in Beirut) and I heard the bomb and I knew it must be Hariri because it wasn’t me”. After a few minutes, Jumblatt said, he walked upstairs and put on a black tie.