BEIRUT — Lebanon is powerless to stop a UN-backed probe into the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri despite a campaign by Hezbollah to torpedo the court, visiting US Senator John Kerry said on Monday.
Kerry spoke in Beirut ahead of talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country was accused anew by Washington on Thursday of fuelling tensions in Lebanon with illicit arms supplies to Hezbollah.
"This is a tribunal that was not created by the United States, not created by any individual entity in this region," said Kerry, chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee, after meeting Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain ex-premier.
"Prime Minister Hariri doesn't have the power to change the tribunal," he added. "Lebanon doesn't have the power to change the tribunal, because it was created by the United Nations at the request of this country."
Kerry said it was not within Hariri's power to change the course of the international probe, despite calls by the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah for Lebanon to disavow the tribunal.
"It would take the votes of many countries to change what is happening," said Kerry, whose country last week announced a new 10-million-dollar contribution to the tribunal.
His visit was the latest in a flurry of diplomatic efforts to contain a growing political crisis in Lebanon over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a UN-backed probe into the 2005 assassination of Hariri and 22 others.
According to unconfirmed reports, the STL is set to implicate high-ranking Hezbollah figures in connection with the murder.
The reports have sparked the ire of the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Shiite party, which has called for a boycott of the STL and accused the United States of using it as its "last pawn" in Lebanon.
Kerry said he did not believe the court was targeting a specific group in Lebanon but rather individuals.
"Nobody knows what the findings will be. I don't know the findings. I think whatever those findings are, they are not directed at a whole group of people."
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, whose party has two ministers in the government, has openly warned all Lebanese against further cooperation with the tribunal.
His second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, has said charges against Hezbollah would be "equivalent to lighting the fuse, to igniting the wick for an explosion."
But Saad Hariri has vowed to see the investigation through.
Analysts have warned the standoff could lead to the collapse of the government and a repeat of the 18-month political deadlock that degenerated into deadly clashes and brought Lebanon close to civil war in May 2008.
In the immediate aftermath of his father's assassination, Hariri accused Syria, then Lebanon's military and political powerbroker, of the bombing. He has since recanted his charges.
Kerry said he was hopeful the Syrian president would emerge as a facilitator in the region.
"We will look to Syria to play a constructive role in these next days in what happens here in Lebanon," he said in Beirut.
"We want Syria to be a constructive force for peace, with Lebanon, with Israel, in the region to help us with respect to the challenges with Iran," he added.
"There's an enormous amount of benefit to Syria in the relationship with the United States and the West that can follow from that kind of action."
In Damascus, the SANA news agency quoted Kerry as underscoring the "importance" of pursuing dialogue with Syria "in order to consolidate security and stability and achieving peace" in the Middle East.
Assad told Kerry that Syria was working for a "just" peace in the region, SANA said.
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