In this file photo taken on February 16, 2005, the grave of Lebanon's slain former prime minister Rafiq Hariri (portrait) is covered with flowers after his funeral in central Beirut. Photo: AFP/Ramzi Haidar

BEIRUT – There is no direct evidence that Hezbollah or the allied Syrian government was responsible for ordering the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an international tribunal in the Netherlands found on Tuesday.

The final verdict found only one Hezbollah member guilty in absentia, while acquitting three others, one of whom is dead. The whereabouts of Salim Ayyash, the only defendant found guilty, are unknown.

“The trial chamber is of the view that Syria and Hezbollah may have had motives to eliminate Mr Hariri and his political allies; however, there is no evidence that the Hezbollah leadership had any involvement in Mr Hariri’s murder and there is no direct evidence of Syrian involvement,” Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) judge David Re told a courtroom outside the Hague in the opening session.

The decision has prompted outrage in Lebanon, with thousands of incredulous replies to local news outlets’ Facebook pages and Twitter reports, some accusing Hariri’s successor, Saad, of making a deal to ensure a non-controversial outcome.

“There is nothing but the yellow, red and green networks,” one user posted to the MTV Lebanon Facebook page, mocking the hours of discussions about mobile phone lines used in the run-up to the assassination.

“The Tabouleh Commission assassinated Hariri!” the user said, referring to a popular Lebanese salad whose ingredients, like the color codes used by the court, are yellow, red and green.

But while many saw the verdict as a scandal, the population at large may also be grateful for an outcome that offers a concession, however bitter, to both camps.

“Many in Lebanon could now be breathing a sigh of relief for avoiding another escalation they do not need,” said Karim Traboulsi, Lebanese political commentator and managing editor of the London-based New Arab.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon verdict comes 15 years after the Valentine’s Day car bombing that left Hariri and 21 others dead in Beirut.

It also comes amid renewed upheaval following a massive explosion of ammonium nitrate at Beirut Port which killed at least 178 people, the cause of which remains under a military court investigation.

An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port’s grain silos and the area around it on Wednesday, one day after a massive explosion hit the area in the heart of the Lebanese capital. Photo: AFP

‘Killing Mr Lebanon’

It is hard to imagine that only 15 years ago, the assassination Hariri – a Western and Saudi Arabia-aligned Sunni billionaire, who emerged as a larger-than-life politician following the Lebanese Civil War – reshaped the Levant.

Since then, Lebanon witnessed a devastating Israeli air incursion (2006), an influx of refugees and violent spillover from the Syrian civil war (2012-2016), a tightening of sanctions against Hezbollah and neighboring Syria, and in the past year alone, financial collapse and an explosion that has disfigured the capital.

But in 2005, it was the untimely death of “Mr Lebanon”, as the charismatic Hariri was dubbed, that shook Beirut. The assassination, widely blamed on Hezbollah agents acting on behalf of Damascus, sparked mass demonstrations against the three-decade Syrian occupation, compelling Syrian troops to evacuate two months later under massive international pressure.

Photos obtained from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon show the four Hezbollah suspects indicted in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, (from top L-R) Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Assad Hassan Sabra, Hussein Hassan Oneissi and Salim Jamil Ayyash. Via: AFP

The Hariri assassination also led to the creation of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is backed by the United Nations but based on Lebanese criminal law.

Supporters saw the tribunal as a vehicle for impartial, internationally-credible justice, and the only hope Hezbollah or the Syrian authorities would be held accountable for alleged masterminding.

The tribunal faced persistent obstacles, however, with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah refusing to hand over the defendants, and the case relying almost entirely on mobile phone records.

From the get-go, Hezbollah and its allies would disparage the Tribunal as a costly and allegedly biased exercise.

Supporters of Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah watch a speech by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on a large screen in Beirut. Photo: AFP

The verdict, which may have come as a surprise, if not shock to the foot soldiers of both camps, arrives a fortnight after the cataclysmic Beirut blast.

The August 4 explosion prompted widespread public outrage against Lebanon’s leaders of the past three decades. Protesters did not spare Saad Hariri or Nasrallah from their anger, hanging cardboard cut-outs of them and the spectrum of ruling elites on a mock gallows two weekends ago.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose Christian Free Patriotic Movement has maintained an alliance with Hezbollah since 2006, said earlier on Tuesday that the country must accept whatever verdict is handed down.

“The assassination of Prime Minister Hariri has greatly affected the lives of the Lebanese people and the course of events in Lebanon, and we must accept what is issued by the International Tribunal, even if the late justice is unfair,” he said on Twitter.

Saad Hariri has put a positive spin on the verdict, calling it a victory against impunity.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud (L), Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (C) and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah attend the Freedom Festival in Beirut on May 25, 2001, celebrating the first anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Photo: Joseph Barrak / AFP

A shattered Lebanon

The scion of the Hariri dynasty who was present for the verdict, has hailed it as a victory for justice, even amid disbelief from the populace at large.

“Thanks to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, for the first time in the history of the many political assassinations Lebanon has witnessed, the Lebanese know the truth,” the former Prime Minister tweeted, immediately after the verdict was delivered.

“The significance of this historical moment sends a message to those who planned and carried out this terrorist crime: the time for using crime in politics with impunity is over!”

Hariri vowed to press for justice for the victims of the August 4 explosion and that its perpetrators would be held to account, a pledge that has already fallen flat.

Following the unimpressive verdict, Lebanese on social media have been mocking earlier calls for an international probe into the Beirut Port blast, saying: “We take it back, we don’t want an international tribunal.”

Yet the gallows humor barely masks the slew of existential crises the country is facing.

Hariri plots comeback

In September, the country witnessed the start of the collapse of its longstanding currency peg to the US dollar, a legacy of the Rafik Hariri years and once upheld as a symbol of Lebanese financial stability.

Saad, his successor, notably agreed in 2016 to participate in a unity cabinet with Hezbollah, becoming the key Sunni ally for the Shiite militant group.

Members of Hariri’s Future Party told Asia Times that the idea was to temporarily set aside their differences for the sake of the country and allow Hariri to reengage the West and the Gulf, which had blacklisted Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Lebanon remained, however, in an increasingly undesirable position, with sanctions tightening on neighboring Syria, erasing hopes Lebanon’s northern port of Tripoli could play a leading, lucrative role in the reconstruction.

On October 17, Lebanese took to the streets in rage against new taxes on WhatsApp, the nation’s de facto phone plan, and fuel, both of which would disproportionately harm the poor.

The first night of protests, in which youth, notably from poor Shiite areas, burned tires and blocked roads, quickly set off street protests across the country, with middle and upper-income Lebanese venting their anger against decades of corruption and mismanagement by the entire spectrum of the country’s ruling political forces.

The participation of poor Shiite youth seemed to evaporate as Hezbollah leader Nasrallah urged patience and then began to disparage the October 17 movement as being directed by foreign interests

Two weeks into the demonstrations, supporters of Hezbollah pushed into downtown Beirut, beating up protesters, including women. In the aftermath of the ugly scene, on October 30, Saad Hariri stepped down in a curt televised address, leaving the Shiite party without a legitimate Sunni ally, even as its Christian allies, President Aoun and Gebran Bassil, became radioactive.

The Hariri resignation would be followed by three months of political vacuum until the appointment of Hassan Diab, a relative unknown, to the position of prime minister in January.

Diab would serve as a placeholder while the country’s most powerful factions retained power through proxy and regrouped. While credited with initially stemming the spread of Covid-19, that early success was reversed as soon as the Beirut airport opened.

Diab’s term also coincided with the country’s deepening financial crisis. His government was either unable or unwilling to pass a critical capital controls law, and thus he presided over the loss of at least US$30 billion in capital flight.

But it was the cataclysmic August 4 explosion of a known store of ammonium nitrate at Beirut Port that brought the government to its knees and sparked a new political battle over the future of the country.

Saad Hariri is now believed to be in negotiations to form a new Lebanese cabinet, with the support of key Sunni politicians. Following Tuesday’s verdict, a potential obstacle to Hezbollah’s blessing has been removed.

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.