Syria's state-run press has roundly criticized the U.N. Security Council's vote to set up an international tribunal for suspects in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus has long said it will refuse to turn over any Syrian suspects to the court. Establishing the tribunal has also been an extremely divisive issue in Lebanon, where the Shi'ite armed group Hezbollah denounced the Security Council move as a violation of Lebanon's sovereignty. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
Rafik Hariri's son, Saad Hariri, called the UN move a "historic moment" and a victory for justice. But his political rivals in Hezbollah issued a statement calling the new U.N. resolution "a violation of Lebanese sovereignty and aggressive interference in Lebanon's internal affairs."
Syria's state-run newspapers condemned the U.N Security Council decision, calling it an American-Israeli plot for "political vengeance" against Syria.
Damascus has previously said it will refuse to cooperate with the tribunal if it indicts any Syrian officials, and the state news agency, SANA, said Syria's position has not changed. An early report by the investigator probing the killings implicated several senior Syrian officials, and Damascus has said it will not allow its citizens to be tried by foreign courts.
But after the Security Council voted, Damascus made an effort to portray its objections as rooted in concern for Lebanese interests, rather than its own.
Political science professor Sami Baroudi of the Lebanese American University says it is possible that Syria's outright rejection of the tribunal is part of a long-term negotiating tactic.
"I'm not really sure whether the Syrian regime can completely [do] just blanket rejection of any cooperation. I think that would sort of complicate relations with other Arab countries and with the international community, and I don't think they're really ready for a step like that," Baroudi says.
The morning after the vote, the Iranian foreign minister paid a surprise visit to Damascus for talks with President Bashar al-Assad that included Lebanese developments.
In Lebanon, where Rafik Hariri and 22 others were killed by a massive car bomb blast more than two years ago, an international court to try the killers has long been an extremely divisive issue. The prime minister supports it; the president does not. The cabinet and the anti-Syrian majority bloc in parliament support it, but most of the opposition parties oppose it, especially those allied with Syria.
Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry, an opposition leader with close ties to Damascus, has refused to convene the legislature for months to avoid holding a vote on the court. So the Security Council approved the tribunal under the legally-binding Chapter 7, without the plans being ratified by the Lebanese parliament.
The longtime U.N. spokesman in Lebanon, Timur Goksel, now teaches at the American University of Beirut. He said given the domestic political deadlock, the Security Council had little choice
"It had to be done, there's no doubt about it. We need justice in this country, in Lebanon. The problem is, it's too much personalized here. It's become not an affair of the state, an affair about justice, or a country or anything, but sort of a competition or a contest between the different political groups in the country. This is very unhealthy."
Opposition leaders have mostly been careful to say they do not necessarily object to the idea of the tribunal itself, but to the way it has been set up. Despite months of wrangling, they were unable to agree. Goksel says they still object to the idea of a court being "imposed" on Lebanon from outside.
"This is something Lebanon should have done by itself," Goksel says. "After all, this court is going to apply Lebanese law. But the judges will not be Lebanese, the majority of judges, and some people are not comfortable with that, which is understandable. On the main opposition side, especially on the Hezbollah side, I believe it's not against the court, but they just are afraid that this court might be used against them."
But since it will likely be at least a year before the court starts its work, Goksel is optimistic that there is time to resolve the outstanding issues.
"If a few political leaders can keep their mouths shut and not try to score points out of this for their own ends, I think this will be all right," Goksel says.
France and the United States have both hailed the tribunal as a positive step for Lebanon. And Lebanese government officials who supported the establishment of the tribunal say they hope it will help push the country back toward political consensus.
But some analysts say the way the Security Council vote fell shows that the international community is also divided on the issue. Five countries -- Russia, China, Indonesia, South Africa and Qatar -- abstained from the vote and have voiced concerns about imposing the tribunal on Lebanon in the absence of a political consensus there.
When the international court convenes, which will be somewhere outside Lebanon, it will become the first U.N.-backed tribunal in the Middle East. Similar courts have been held for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. It is still not clear where the court will be located. The Netherlands, which has hosted other tribunals, says it is not interested.