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Middle East: UN Inquiry Into Hariri Assassination Points Finger At Syria

  • Robert Parsons --> The scene after the bomb blast that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February (AFP) A UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri says there is evidence of both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in his death. Hariri was killed on 14 February by a massive car bombing which, the report says, could only have been carried out by a group with extensive organization. The findings of the report, which are to be discussed by the UN Security Council next 25 October, are likely to further Syria's isolation in the Arab world and lead to increased pressure from the West.

Prague, 21 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In Lebanon, the release of the report has been greeted with almost universal relief. Speculation about its progress and findings has dominated national life since the UN entrusted German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis with the task of carrying out the investigation on 16 June.

Hilal Khashan is a lecturer in political science at the American University of Beirut. He said: "The report did not come as a surprise. Much of the content of the report was already in circulation in Lebanon. But the reaction to the report has been positive. People feel it is the first step towards justice. Politicians on the Hariri side have been exuberant. People tend to feel that the truth is coming out."

Critically, the report claims to have found a smoking gun. It states there is "converging evidence" of both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

Given the degree of infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society, the report says, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without the knowledge of senior Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials.

That brings the investigation uncomfortably close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself. According the U.S. daily "The Wall Street Journal," the report mentions that one witness implicated Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who is the head of Syrian military intelligence.
Paradoxically, though, al-Assad's weakness is also his strength.

International patience -- and, in particular, Washington's patience -- with al-Assad is fast running out. Syria already features on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorism-sponsoring states. The Mehlis report will make sure it stays there.

When the UN Security Council meets to discuss its findings on 25 October, Syria will find itself in the spotlight. Jonathan Lindley is a Middle East specialist at the British Royal United Services Institute.

"One of the most damaging demands that it currently being mooted is that Syrian officials might be demanded to attend interviews outside Syria, which would be a major blow to the prestige of the government and may lead to more revelations. That would possibly be supported by a combination of intensified trade sanctions or sanctions against individuals. More importantly, though, diplomatic isolation of the government not just by the Western powers but also from Middle East and Arab governments."

Al-Assad's options are not good. He may find it difficult to comply with UN demands for full cooperation if the investigation implicates his closest political allies, yet he is unlikely to risk snubbing the international community altogether.
Halal Khashan, who is a close observer of Syrian political behavior, believes al-Assad will be looking for a face-saving compromise.

"We may encounter a situation whereby a deal will be struck with the Syrians to hand in the perpetrators in exchange for major concessions. Americans have a list of concessions they want the Syrians to render. If these concessions are delivered, the case would stop at those security officials involved in the assassination of Hariri and there would be no accountability vis-a-vis the Syrian political leadership."

Paradoxically, though, al-Assad's weakness is also his strength. However much Washington might dislike his regime, there are no obvious alternatives to replace him. Worse still, there is a danger that if the al-Assad dynasty were to collapse, Syria could disintegrate into the sort of chaos that has torn apart Iraq. That's not a prospect the United States can view with equanimity.