Syria under pressure

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

A file photograph of protests in Beirut, Lebanon, after the assassination. Syrian forces were eventually forced to move out of Lebanon. - KEVIN FRAYER/AP

A file photograph of protests in Beirut, Lebanon, after the assassination. Syrian forces were eventually forced to move out of Lebanon. - KEVIN FRAYER/AP

A United Nations investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri points the finger at Syria, and this can add strength to the U.S. moves against it.

THE report of the United Nations-appointed investigator, Detlev Mehlis, on the February 14 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, has put the Syrian government on the defensive. The contents of the 53-page report that Mehlis submitted to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on October 21, while not providing proof of a `smoking gun', has cited "converging evidence" of the Syrian and Lebanese governments' involvement in the assassination.

"There is probably cause to believe that the decision to assassinate... could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organised without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services," the report stated. The report, however, did not implicate Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and his close associates, except for noting that Syria's long-serving Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Shara, had tried to mislead the investigation in a letter addressed to Mehlis. The report is short on specifics.

The general scepticism regarding the report only deepened when it was revealed that Mehlis had inexplicably deleted the names of some senior Syrian officials from the report at the eleventh hour, though their names figured in earlier drafts. The report almost exclusively relies on the testimony of a single Syrian witness, who has said that the Syrian President's brother, Maher al-Assad, and brother-in-law, Major-General Asef Shawkat, were in the group of Syrian and Lebanese officials who "decided to assassinate" Hariri. According to the report, the alleged meeting took place in September 2004 in Damascus.

Mehlis, a German citizen, told the media at the U.N. headquarters in New York that there was no "conspiracy" involved in the last-minute deletions. "No one outside the report team influenced those changes. No changes whatsoever were suggested by the Secretary-General or by anyone in the United Nations," he said.

The Syrian Ambassador to the U.N., Faisal Mekdad, said that all the charges being made against his country were "categorically void of the truth". He pointed out that Hariri was a close friend of Syria and therefore "it was not in the interest of any party to commit such a folly". The Syrian envoy said it would be a "big mistake" committed by the international community if it punished states that did not pose any threat to world peace and security. Syria's Information Minister Mehdi Dakhiallah told Al Jazeera television that the report of the U.N. investigation team was "a political statement against Syria, based on allegations by witnesses known for their hostility to Syria". Describing the report as "unprofessional", the Minister said: "No honest court can accept such a report, which is based on gossip."

The Lebanese President's Office has also been critical of the report. President Emille Lahoud has strongly denied that he had contacts with some of the suspects named in the report. The report says one of the suspects had a telephonic conversation with Lahoud minutes before the assassination.

The pressure on Syrian officials has already started taking its toll. Interior Minister Ghazi Kannan, who had been questioned by the investigators, committed suicide in the second week of October. Hours before his death, he telephoned a Beirut television station to say that he was innocent. Kannan was Syria's point man in Lebanon until recently. As Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, he was privy to many secrets.

United States President George W. Bush called on the U.N. Security Council to convene a meeting to discuss the issues. Washington has been signalling for some time that nothing short of international sanctions on Syria will suffice. "The report strongly suggests that the politically motivated assassination could not have taken place without Syrian involvement," he has said. He told the media that he had instructed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call on the U.N. to convene a session of the Security Council "as quickly as possible to deal with the very serious matter". He said that the U.S. had already started talking to the U.N. and Arab governments about steps to be taken to penalise Syria. The French and British governments have already indicated that they want the international community to take a tough stance on Syria. France has been diplomatically very active on the issue. Paris would like to see Francophone Lebanon back in its sphere of influence.

DAMASCUS has been bracing itself for the current diplomatic onslaught ever since the tragic incident occurred in Lebanon. Even before the investigations began, the Lebanese Opposition and the West pointed its finger at Damascus. The Syrian government has been vociferously denying any involvement, arguing that it stood to lose politically from the tragedy. This was precisely what happened. The Syrian armed forces, which had successfully kept the peace in the strife-torn country for more than two decades under an international mandate, had to leave it within months in the face of Lebanese and international pressure. In the elections held in the middle of this year, parties opposed to Damascus swept the polls. For the first time since the mid-1980s, forces inimical to Syria were in control of Lebanon.

Even before Hariri's assassination, the Bush administration was gunning for the secular Baath government in Damascus. A senior U.S. official described Syria "as a low hanging fruit, ripe for the picking". The main grouse of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration was that the Syrian government was not doing enough to help the beleaguered American occupation forces in Iraq.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government had openly appreciated Syrian help in the fight against "global terrorism". Last year, Syria handed over to U.S. custody one of Saddam Hussein's half-brothers, who had taken refuge in Damascus.

Syria shares a long and porous border with Iraq. Syrian officials say they find it difficult to monitor continuously the activities of the Iraqi resistance groups along the shared borders. In the last couple of months, there have been reports in the American media about the U.S. Special Forces staging forays into Syrian territory. In one such incident, they reportedly killed many Syrian soldiers. The fact that Syria has been a long-standing ally of Iran is also a sore point with the Bush administration.

A senior U.S. State Department official, David Welch, articulated recently American concerns over Syria's "interference" in Iraq and Lebanon and in Israeli-Palestinian issues. He told the media in Cairo in early October that Syrian behaviour "is not changing". President Bush in a speech in the same week denounced Syria and Iran as "outlaw regimes" acting as "allies of convenience" with militants.

Washington routinely accuses Damascus of using the Hezbollah party in Lebanon as a proxy. Hezbollah has emerged as a popular political party, representing the interests of the poor in south Lebanon. The Bush administration has, however, classified the Hezbollah militia (the armed wing of the party) as a terrorist organisation. It has accused Teheran of training and arming the Hezbollah militia. According to the U.S. government, Syria facilitates the movement of Iranian arms and officials to Lebanon through its territory. That Syria continues to be a staunch opponent of the Zionist project in West Asia is an additional irritant for the U.S.

The Mehlis report has dragged the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) into the conspiracy surrounding the Hariri killing, without providing much proof. With the withdrawal of Syria's forces from Lebanon and the considerable dilution of its political influence in that country, it is Israel that stands to gain. The Christian parties and political figures it backed in the 1970s and the 1980s are once again on the ascendant in Lebanon.

In the past two months, the talk about bringing about regime change in Syria has got louder by the day. Washington has signalled to its Arab allies that it would be willing to countenance a military figure replacing Assad. Washington knows that a truly democratic outcome in Syria will not be in the interest of its imperial project in West Asia. Given the mood in the region, the Americans may find it difficult to identify a military figure in Syria who is willing to do their bidding.

The Western media have acknowledged that the West's brazen power play against the Syrian government has boosted President Assad's popularity at home. After the events of October, Syrians have been rallying round their young President. The disparate Opposition is also trying to regroup and project a united front. Leaders representing parties ranging from the Communist party to the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement jointly, grandiosely titled the "Damascus Declaration", in late October. Among other things, the document called for an end to the emergency laws and a return to multi-party democracy.

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