How The Wire Explains Lebanese Politics

Does it matter who killed Rafiq al-Hariri? Ask Slim Charles.

At the end of the third season of The Wire, the fictional HBO series, a Baltimore drug gang led by Avon Barksdale is arming up to take revenge on a rival gang for the murder of his top lieutenant, Stringer Bell. Barksdale, however, knows that Stringer wasn't killed by the rival gang, but rather had fallen as part of a conspiracy of his own making and tries to explain to his top enforcer what really happened.

But the enforcer, Slim Charles, doesn't want to hear it. Knowing that the gang is in the other room, arming up to go to war over the murder and with a canny understanding of the tribal vengeance dynamic that's in play, Charles cuts off his boss.

"If it's a lie," he empathically tells Avon. "Then we fight on that lie."

The hard-nosed world of David Simon's Baltimore can go a long way to explaining the reaction on all sides to the conclusion of an international tribunal that Hezbollah operatives stalked and assassinated Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in a massive 2005 truck bombing along Beirut's seaside that also killed more than 20 members of his entourage and innocent bystanders.

The killing of Hariri, one of the region's most prominent Sunni political and business figures, sparked a wave of domestic and international outrage directed at Hezbollah's key ally, Syria, which at the time dominated Lebanon's security and political apparatus. Using the momentum of a popular uprising that formed at least a momentary unification of major Lebanese factions -- minus Hezbollah, of course -- Syria was forced to relinquish its 30-year hold on Lebanon.

But the idea that Hezbollah, the strongest and most ruthlessly competent faction in Lebanon, not to mention a close ally of the Syrian regime, might have been involved was hardly mentioned for years after the killing. In retrospect, the prospect that the vaunted "Resistance" of Lebanon had a hand in killing a national symbol would have punctured the myth that Hezbollah had never turned its formidable arsenal on Lebanon. And the idea that only Hezbollah would attack Israel and its collaborator allies in the occupation of southern Lebanon was a critical myth to the survival of the state.

Yes, people wanted the truth when everyone was convinced that the hit was a heavy-handed Syrian attempt to rein in a growing demand for Lebanese freedom. That fit the narrative arc of Lebanese oppression at the hands of a Syrian regime that never shied away from overdoing the brutality when threatened, but it also didn't upset the careful balance of denial and self-delusion that has allowed this deeply troubled and fractious little country to stumble along despite massive internal divisions and malignant external actors.

When a series of media leaks first suggested that in fact Hezbollah might have been involved in the killings, the response from Hariri's political supporters was near panic. Rafiq's son and political heir, Saad, who actually took a brief turn as prime minister in the aftermath of his father's killing, alternated between suggestions that Hezbollah wasn't involved and calls that everyone should ignore the media leaks and let the tribunal do its job in peace. The Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, Rafiq's close friend and political ally, actually described the allegation of Hezbollah's involvement as dangerous and a potential threat to the survival of the state.

As I reported on these early allegations, I was struck by the sheer terror in the voices of Hariri's Sunni supporters of what it might mean if these claims turned out to be true. But even more telling was the reaction of my sources that were close to Hezbollah. For political supporters or Shiites who had grown up with the notion that the Party of God was a protector and liberator, their reaction was as it remains today: a steadfast denial followed by a specious claim that Israel must have been involved. But the closer the sources were to Hezbollah, the more interesting the reaction became.

After weeks of being told by both sides that it was dangerous to even suggest such a thing, with many Hariri supporters even suggesting that they were praying it wasn't true, I casually mentioned the allegation to a Hezbollah commander that I had known for some time, expecting a pat denial and finger extended toward Tel Aviv.

Instead, he calmly looked at me and explained that he had no idea if Hezbollah was involved in Hariri's killing, but if it had been, the group would have had its reasons. It wasn't his refusal to reject that theory that shocked me; it was his absolute certainty that if they had killed him, that meant it wasn't only justified, but necessary.

Of course, the public stance of the party remains a flat denial, even if it's becoming abundantly clear that most Hezbollah supporters don't really care if their team did, after all, kill the former prime minister. Hezbollah's normally articulate and logical leader Hasan Nasrallah took to the airwaves on the night of Aug. 17 to argue that even accusing a member of the resistance of such an act was tantamount to treason, when everyone knows that Israel has infiltrated Lebanon's telecommunication sector and could have manipulated the data pointing at a cell of Hezbollah operatives. He stressed that the tribunal has been a witchhunt from its inception -- first focused on Syria until the initial witnesses were discredited, and later shifting to Hezbollah itself -- and that the entire process is designed to weaken the Lebanese state by pitting Sunni Muslim supporters of Hariri against the mostly Shiite supporters of Hezbollah.

In keeping with any good myth, many of Nasrallah's allegations are based in solid facts. Israel has been caught spending considerable effort to infiltrate Lebanon's phone networks and certainly has been credibly accused of assassinating its enemies in Lebanon over the years. And the first year of the tribunal's investigation was marred by overzealous pursuit of leads brought by witnesses who were later revealed to be misleading at best, and flat out lying at worst.

But Nasrallah's arguments can't overcome the necessary leap of logic to address the most important issues: that beyond the Israelis' easily understandable desire to spy on Lebanese phones in their constant intelligence battles against Hezbollah and Palestinian militants based in Lebanon, there's not a single shred of evidence that points in their direction on the Hariri assassination. No one has offered a credible theory as to why Israel would want to kill Hariri, a figure popular in the West and a symbol of the post civil war stability in Lebanon that Israel so obviously craves.

With all of the evidence released thus far pointing to the killers putting tremendous effort into making it appear that the attack was the work of Sunni jihadists based in northern Lebanon -- a fake video claimed the attack in the name of a fictitious group, using a young Palestinian refugee who, the indictment claims, was last seen in the company of one of the accused, while the phone SIM cards and truck used to deliver the blast were purchased in Tripoli, a city with no Shiite population to speak of -- it stretches belief that the Israelis would frame Hezbollah by pretending to be Hezbollah guys pretending to be al Qaeda guys. (Although it is theoretically possible.) There's just not a single bit of evidence to support the notion beyond a Lebanese sense that it's something the diabolical Mossad might do.

Despite these weak arguments, even if the tribunal provides strong evidence at trial to bolster what the prosecutors admit is a mostly circumstantial case, there's little chance of changing anyone's mind. Hezbollah's supporters don't back the party only because they believe in the group and its cause (although the vast majority certainly does), they support it for the same reasons all Lebanese political factions maintain their support: because Lebanon's static sectarian system is built around fear and bribery. Wavering in support of the sectarian or political machine that you and your family have been backing for decades would bring uncertainty and empower your rivals. The confessional system is deeply embedded in Lebanese society: Many Lebanese rely on the sectarian connections for their jobs, their children's educations, and a societal safety net of patronage opportunities. In a world where every party is seen as corrupt, fear-mongering machines, it's best to stick with the known quantity of your own kind. And as bad as things might be in Lebanon, everyone is afraid of what the other guys might do if your side shows weakness.

A perfect example would be Hezbollah's top Christian ally, former Army chief of staff Michel Aoun. "The General," as his fanatical supporters like to call him, made his name as a strong opponent of Syrian and foreign influence in Lebanon during the late 1980s. Seizing control of the Lebanese government and military at the tail end of the civil war, in 1989 he first assailed Christian militias in East Beirut before turning his sights on the Syrians, who were trying to consolidate their control over Lebanon. Defeated by the Syrian military, which bombed him out of his bed in the presidential palace, he escaped into exile for 15 years in Paris before returning after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. After a series of bitter fights with the anti-Syrian coalition over seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Aoun defected to an alliance with Hezbollah, with Syria's blessing.

His supporters, who were previously unified in their distrust of Hezbollah and its Iranian allies -- not to mention sharing a deep-seated hatred of the Syrian regime, which had disappeared scores of Aoun loyalists into mass graves and secret prisons throughout the 1990s -- didn't even flinch. Today, Aoun warns the region of the dangers of trying to overthrow the embattled Assad regime and even parrots its absurd claim that the only uprising in Syria is by criminals and terrorists.

How much support has this reversal cost General Aoun among his ferociously anti-Syrian, mostly Christian supporters? None. He's perhaps the single most popular Christian figure in Lebanon. It as if Michelle Bachmann suddenly came out in support of gay rights and socialized medicine and stormed to victory with the same backing she has today.

In other words, there's virtually no chance that any revelation about Hezbollah's involvement in the Hariri killing will change a thing for the group in Lebanon. The party's supporters look around at its enemies -- Israel to the south, Sunnis and Christians collaborating with the Americans -- and see the Syrian regime under massive international and domestic pressure. They just don't care if Hezbollah really did kill Hariri. If the group did do it, he must have had it coming. And if it's a lie, they're going to fight on that lie. It's the Lebanese way.


Roads to Ruin

Generations of conquerors and marauders have come and gone in northern Afghanistan, but the paths on which they travel have endured.

Maybe there are no fields other than battlefields,
those still remembered,
and those long forgotten,
birch woods and cedar woods,
snows and sands, iridescent swamps,
and ravines of dark defeat.

— Wislawa Szymborska, "Reality Demands"

NEAR SHAHRAQ, Afghanistan — The dirt track unfurls through the desert northward: unbroken, straight, infinite. Patches of drought-shriveled cotton fields daub the blanched plains. Ascensions of larks tumble out of sunflowers, spilling fine clouds of husks and dust, and, dipping in unison, wing toward some other field. On the horizon, where the road seems to bend downward with the world's curvature, two motorcycle riders clear out of the quivering sky. The man driving my car reaches for his 9-millimeter Luger.

Northern Afghanistan's roads project a sense of constancy. Their appearance is biblical: unmarked and unpaved stretches coursing past villages of crumbling cob, traversed by donkey-drawn carts and camel caravans laden with almonds and hay. Hardly anyone has ever maintained their surface. Every pothole to slow down for, every chunk of sharp rock to swerve around, every roadside hollow where iridescent sewage pools has probably been there for decades, maybe centuries.

But in this systematically violated land, no road ever remains the same. Each is a treacherous route of the latest invading army or insurrection, suppurating with wounds old and new. On the northbound track from Mazar-e-Sharif, tomb raiders sift through the sands of Askar Qaleh for treasures left two millennia ago, but no one can tell me whether they were left by the invading army of Alexander the Great or the Kushans, who colonized Bactria after him. In Siogert, teenage goatherds play lonesome flute tunes in the sandcastle ruins of a bazaar: The mujahideen shelled it as they wrenched the village from Soviet hands in the 1980s. A mile or so away, there is an abandoned wheat field -- don't go there! -- planted with POMZ-2M land mines, a remnant of the ethnic wars of the 1990s. A green flag flutters from a stake driven into a nearby rocky shoulder: Someone attacked a car carrying ballots for the 2009 presidential election here, killed the driver, and set the car ablaze.

But as always, Afghanistan's palimpsest of violence is being scrawled over with fresh iniquities. In recent months, the ancient road has become the instrument, and the witness, of the Taliban's steady creeping advance through the Khorasan.

Here is the spot, as yet unmarked, where in June the Taliban killed Sober, a teacher from Siogert. Several people have pointed it out to me; Sober was well-loved by many. Half a mile to the north, a crater scoops out the road's shoulder; a homemade bomb detonated here three weeks ago near the car of a Siogert village elder, Malah. (Malah, a hard man with cold eyes, was unharmed. He doesn't like to talk about it.) A few hundred yards further is the sooty chimney of the Shahraq brick factory. Two dozen Taliban, armed with Kalashnikovs, showed up there two weeks ago to demand a donation of $2,000 to their holy war coffers.

Nameless, limbic angst hangs over stretches of the road. "If you and I go to Shahraq we won't come out alive," a taxi driver tells me one morning. Later, he clarifies: "If you and I go to Shahraq they won't even find our bones."

(We drive past Shahraq twice that day. The road runs through it.)

A year ago on this road, at dawn and at dusk, day laborers from villages clung to the doors and roofs of overcrowded buses headed to and from Mazar-e-Sharif. During the day, pack animals moseyed from village to village. Women in blue burqas jounced in the flatbeds of zaranj motor-rickshaws bound for hospitals and shrines. There was little other traffic. Often my car was the only one on the road all day. Children would crawl upon hand-slapped clay walls and squat to stare.

Then, last spring, during the wheat harvest, motorcycles appeared on the road. Motorcycles are the fastest mode of transport on the rutted Bactrian tracks; they are the Taliban's vehicle of choice. The riders were usually men, their faces wrapped in the kerchiefs most Afghan men wear as turbans or around their necks. Was it to protect the riders from inhaling the omnipresent vapor of atomized clay and dung? Or to conceal their faces from the inquisitive eyes of others? Both?

In March, near the blooming almond orchards of Khairabad, I saw a motorcycle parked by the side of the road. As our car passed, two men scrambled out of the irrigation ditch next to it and ran after us. One of them reached his right hand inside his striped chapan coat. You've seen this gesture in movies. The driver floored it. The car veered to the left. I looked back, but all I could see was a big cloud of ocher dust between us and the men.

I never found out who they were.

"On that road, you can't tell who's an enemy and who's a friend," says Amin Bai, an elder from Oqa, a village farther north. "All my life the road has been like this: now it's safe, the next day it's not."

After the March encounter, the driver started carrying the Luger. He inherited both the pistol and the ammunition for it from his grandfather. He keeps it by the handbrake, wrapped in a brown scarf. He doesn't remember when he last fired it.

We are passing Shahraq this month when the two men on a motorcycle materialize on the road. For the first time in years, the driver cocks the trigger.

The motorcyclists are about three hundred yards away when they tack suddenly and drive off the road into the desert. A few seconds later they vanish among the silver spiny tufts of cousinia.

In their place appears a rider.

He is wearing a white shalwar kameez. A white kerchief is wrapped in a turban around his shaved head. His feet are bare. His beard is silver, like desert thorns.

He is riding a white donkey. I think he has been riding on this road forever.

Anna Badkhen