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Why Was a Former Lebanese 'Spymaster' Trying to Become a UNESCO Delegate?

The assassination of the country's former Prime Minister has cast a shadow over Lebanon.

General Jamil Al Sayyed (Screenshot via)

During the Syrian occupation of his country, General Jamil Al Sayyed rose to be regarded as the most influential intelligence official in Lebanon. In fact, the English writer and journalist Robert Fisk once recalled that after eight years of trying to negotiate the un-banning of his opus on Lebanon’s civil war, Pity the Nation, eventually all it took was a one-minute phone call with Sayyed – then director-general of the General Security Department of the Lebanese Interior Ministry – and the deed was done.


After establishing close connections to Assad’s inner circle, as well as the Syrian intelligence networks that operated with near hegemony inside Syria’s tiny neighbour, Sayyed carried an influence that, at times, outweighed that of Prime Ministers and Presidents – especially where Syria was concerned. He was, in Fisk’s words, “not a man you would choose to argue with”.

Sayyed is also not necessarily someone you'd earmark for the post of UNESCO delegate to the Marshall Islands. An Hezbollah-affiliated former “spymaster” becoming a cultural envoy for an ex-US colony with a penchant for backing Israeli bids at the UN doesn’t sound quite right. However, the post was very nearly his.

That is, until a French journalist – whose release from the Islamic Army of Iraq Sayyed had helped to negotiate in 2004 – pointed out that the general's interest in the post may have stemmed from a desire to procure diplomatic immunity, rather than a genuine enthusiasm for matters in the Marshall Islands.

On the 12th of February, the Marshall Islands withdrew Sayyed’s nomination as questions were raised regarding the ethics and the back-room deals that had brought it about. Sayyed promptly sued the French journalist, but confusion within the Marshallese cabinet – none of whom seemed completely sure if they'd ever met Sayyed – hardly assuaged suspicion.

UNESCO seemed happy to pin the blame on the Marshall Islands, with Sue Williams – Chief Media Officer at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters – stating: “Member states are responsible for their own representatives to UNESCO. The organisation is not involved in this process.” Which raised the question of whether the nomination would have gone ahead had it not been for the exposé and consequent public pressure on the Marshallese government.


Williams declined to comment on whether UNESCO itself viewed Sayyed’s nomination as suspicious – the organisation has been involved in scandals involving the questionable procurement of diplomatic immunity before. She did, however, confirm that “most often, [UNESCO] representatives are nationals of the country concerned, but there are cases – particularly with small island nations – where representatives are non-nationals", and that "UNESCO doesn’t grant diplomatic immunity. That comes with the position."

Assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri

After the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 – in a bombing a couple of months before the Syrian occupation of Lebanon came to an end – Sayyed was forced out of office and into a cell, along with three other high-ranking pro-Syrian generals, one of whom had been Hariri’s bodyguard.

In addition to his widely reported connections within the Assad regime, Sayyed fell under the investigation's gaze due to the fact he had allegedly placed figures – who, like Hariri, were critical of Syria’s influence in Lebanon – under surveillance, overseen security officials who failed to seal the crime scene for three weeks, quickly filled in the bomb crater and carted away wreckage.

However, the case surrounding Sayyed collapsed after the investigation into Hariri’s death – the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) – discounted the testimonies of two key witnesses who had implicated him. Thanks to the inconsistencies in their statements, a lack of corroborative evidence to support them and the fact that some witnesses had modified their statements – and one key witness had expressly retracted his original statement incriminating those who'd been detained – Sayyed was released without charge.


The “false witness” scandal undoubtedly damaged the credibility of the STL. But many Hariri supporters – some of whom make up Lebanon’s March 14 parliamentary block, an anti-Syrian coalition of political parties and independents founded by Hariri's son, Saad – believe the Syrian regime planted the witnesses there to discredit the investigation.

Sayyed’s dalliances with the Marshall Islands might suggest that the former general is fearful of a recall. After all, it was only last year that he tried to run in the Lebanese general elections on the Amal-Hezbollah roster for the Bekaa valley municipality of Baalbek and Hermel. This position would also have come with the benefit of diplomatic immunity. (When these allegations were put to Sayyed, the response from his spokesperson was: "Sayyed is and was never in need to seek for any kind of immunity, either parliamentary or diplomatic. It is in his unconditional personal and political rights to be [a] candidate for local elections or for any other post inside or outside Lebanon. What his Lebanese opponents would think about that is purely based on their political opinion and has nothing to do with real justice, which already and definitely decided on the [Hariri] case in favour of Sayyed.") However, Lebanon’s deteriorating security situation led the country’s caretaker government to delay the elections for an unprecedented 18 months.

Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah


On the 14th of February, only two days after the Marshall Islands withdrew the UNESCO nomination, a Lebanese cabinet was formed after an 11-month vacuum. The March 14 block and the March 8 block – a pro-Syria group led by Hezbollah – agreed to join forces in a “national unity” government. The deal was a compromise involving gains and losses for both sides: Hezbollah’s willingness to join a coalition government cast the Shia party and its Iranian backers as forces capable of playing a balancing act in the region. But the organisation also made some concessions, notably ceding control of the Justice and Telecommunications ministries to their March 14 rivals.

In protest, Sayyed cut all ties with March 8.

Both ministries are viewed as crucial to the work of the STL; the Justice Ministry heading efforts to cooperate with the tribunal and the Telecommunications Ministry responsible for facilitating access to telecoms data for investigations. Under March 14 control, they are likely to be more accommodating to the STL's work than they were previously while under the jurisdiction of the March 8 movement.

Imad Salameh, a professor at the Lebanese American University, notes that the shift could provide the STL greater capacity to deliver its verdict: “The Justice Ministry is a big take for March 14, and a boost to the STL in terms of exerting influence in the executive and judicial branches," he said.


On the 27th of February, March 14 submitted a petition to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, demanding that the STL investigates all assassination attempts against their members over a ten-year period. Those range from the attempt on Progressive Socialist Party MP Marwan Hamadeh in October of 2004, up to the assassination of Mohammad Chatah – a close aide of Saad Hariri – in December of 2013.

Last week, following the petition, the STL prosecution team in the Hague announced that a "related cases" team has been established to "investigate and analyse material" related to other attacks on March 14 figures currently outside its jurisdiction, in addition to the three already-sanctioned related cases. Decisions on whether there is enough evidence to formally accuse suspects in these cases is expected by the end of the year.

The petition reflects a hope that evidence implicating Damascus in Hariri's murder can be found by widening the net. The March 14 block remain unsatisfied with the STL’s work when it comes to bringing those responsible for the former prime minister's assassination to justice; currently five alleged Hezbollah affiliates are implicated in the crime, but only one is present in the Hague. Hezbollah has repeatedly refused to give up the remaining four, dismissing the tribunal as an "Israeli instrument".

While the petition may not have been primarily directed towards Sayyed, and he himself insists there is no evidence warranting his investigation, his recent behaviour has brought his name back into the case. With the March 14 coalition now incumbent in the Justice and Telecommunications ministries, Sayyed could face further challenges ahead. With what looks like two failed attempts at procuring diplomatic immunity within the space of a year, Sayyed could be hoping for third time lucky if the STL come knocking again.