Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblat began on Monday his testimony at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that is examining the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by recounting the nature of the ties between Lebanon and Syria, particularly with the ruling Assad family.
He told the trial chamber: “Bashar Assad showed hostility towards Rafik Hariri before he was elected president.”
Jumblat said that he had met Assad twice prior to his election as Syrian president in 2000.
He noted his animosity towards Hariri during the second meeting, which was held in Damascus in 1999.
“It was not a comfortable meeting and he focused his questions on Hariri. Evidence of his hostility towards him was clear in this meeting,” revealed Jumblat.
On Assad, he stated: “Sometimes, you can understand a person simply from a single meeting. I became aware that we in Lebanon would be faced with a hurdle with the arrival as Assad as president.”
Commenting on his first meeting with Assad, Jumblat recalled that it was held in Lebanon and attended by then head of Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon Ghazi Kanaan.
“The meeting was an introductory one and we talked about silly matters,” noted Jumblat.
“Kanaan told me after the meeting however that 'I should be aware of who the Assad family is.' I did not make much of this comment at the time, but I recalled it a few years later with the forced suicide of Kanaan” in 2005, continued the PSP leader.
Speculation surrounded the Syrian official's death, with some claiming that he was in fact killed by the Syrian regime due to information he possessed over Hariri's 2005 assassination.
Addressing the election of Emile Lahoud as president, Jumblat revealed that he, along with Hariri and then President Elias Hrawi, sought in 1995 to delay his election due to his close ties with the Syrian regime.
Lahoud was elected president in 1998.
Jumblat said that he succeeded in delaying his election “in complicity with Hariri, Hrawi, former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, and late Syrian Chief of Staff Hikmat al-Shehabi.”
The MP told the court that he opposed Lahoud's election as president because of his military background and “complete affiliation with the Syrian regime.”
“The president and prime minister in Lebanon had no control over the Lebanese army, which was under the command of Lahoud. The army answered to Syria,” he said.
“We wanted a president who had some room to maneuver in order to implement the Taef Accord,” he added.
“Hafez and Bashar Assad were friends with Lahoud and we sensed that the security grip over Lebanon was tightening,” remarked the MP.
“Ties with Syria were aimed at confronting the Israeli threat and implementing the Taef Accord. I sought with Hariri and Hrawi to allow Lebanon to control its fate, but the Syrian security apparatus thwarted our efforts,” Jumblat stated.
“In 1998, a Syrian order was made to elect Lahoud as president. Lebanese officials were summoned to the headquarters of the Syrian intelligence in Lebanon where they were ordered to fulfill their demands. Very few people had the courage to oppose them,” he explained.
“The implementation of the will of the Syrian president is done through the Syrian security apparatus in Lebanon and the Lebanese security agencies that were affiliated to it,” he added.
On the build up to the extension of Lahoud's term in September 2004, Jumblat recounted how he held a meeting with head of Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh in August during which he informed him of his opposition to the proposal.
Ghazaleh responded to the MP that “you are either with us of against us,” said Jumblat.
“After expressing my refusal, Ghazaleh informed Assad and Lahoud, who each canceled meetings I had scheduled with them,” he stated.
Jumblat interpreted these developments as a sign of Assad's hostility to him and later Hariri.
“Hariri and I agreed to reject the extension of Lahoud's term, but we each had our own way of executing this decision,” he continued.
Asked about his ties with Ghazaleh, Jumblat tersely replied: “We were not on friendly terms.”
The STL Prosecution then addressed the August 2004 meeting held between Hariri and Assad in Damascus.
Jumblat said that the meeting “was very brief and the premier and the accompanying delegation were not invited to take a seat.”
Assad informed Hariri to accept the extension of Lahoud term, noted the MP.
“Hariri was told by Assad that 'I am Lahoud and Lahoud is me,'” revealed the PSP chief.
“The Syrian president also informed Hariri that 'if French President Jacques Chirac seeks to remove Syrian troops from Lebanon, then he will break Lebanon on his head,'” he continued.
“Assad also told Hariri that 'Jumblat is mistaken if he believes that he controls all of the Druze. I have Druze of my own,'” he was quoted as saying by the PSP chief.
“Hariri left the meeting in Damascus and returned to Lebanon were we met at my Clemenceau residence,” recalled Jumblat.
“Hariri was very concerned and shaken,” he added.
“I concluded Assad's statements to be a political and physical threat to Hariri. I therefore persuaded him to accept the extension for his own safety because I know what the Syrian regime is capable of,” he stressed.
“I refused to vote for the extension, but told Hariri to vote for it for his safety,” he told the court.
“Despite the threat against me by Syria, I chose to oppose the extension because it was time for the rise of a free and independent Lebanon,” Jumblat remarked.
“I was forced to make a choice and I chose to reject the extension. My conscience is clear,” he stressed.
“Assad directly threatened Hariri because the Syrians knew that had he and I rejected the extension at parliament, it would not have passed,” he explained.
“For the Democratic Gathering, the extension presented a new phase for us. It was marked by new political alliances. We sought to create the largest front to confront the forced extension,” he added.
The Prosecution then focused its cross-examination on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 that was issued in August 2004.
Jumblat said: “The resolution was linked to the extension. Hariri was later accused of being behind the resolution, but it was in fact out of the hands of the Lebanese.”
“Hariri and I later rejected the resolution and repeatedly called for the implementation of the Taef Accord,” he stressed.
“The resolution would not have been issued had it not been for the extension of Lahoud's term,” he stated.
Jumblat will continue his testimony on Tuesday.
Hariri was killed in a massive bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005.
The STL was set up to examine the assassination.
Five Hizbullah members have so far been indicted.
The tribunal kicked off its proceedings in 2014, listening to various witness accounts, including those of prominent lawmakers and journalists.
The political testimonies are focusing on Hariri's ties with the Syrian leadership and the influence the Syrian regime wielded over Lebanon.
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