Prague, 31 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The shock waves from the Beirut bomb blast which killed Hariri last February are still reverberating around the Middle East.
Hariri was one of the most significant figures in recent Lebanese politics, and an opponent of Syria's dominant hand in
Lebanon. So who killed him?
"Perhaps it would not be right to mix criminal investigation procedures
with international relations. Such an attempt is being made in the
[draft] resolution and we met with our Security Council colleagues
today, including permanent members, and discussed our concern."
Suspicion immediately fell on Syria. And that suspicion has been heightened by the report issued on 20 October by UN
Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis.
It said the massive blast which killed Hariri and at least 20 others on Beirut's seafront drive could not have been carried
out without the approval of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services.
The report was even more specific, naming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher, and brother-in-law Asef Shawkat among the senior Syrian officials implicated. Shawkat, the chief of military intelligence, is seen as the most powerful man in Syria after the president.
The matter comes to a today, when the UN Security Council is expected to vote on a resolution backed by the United
States, France, and Britain. The resolution calls for Syria to cooperate fully with the UN inquiry -- or risk international
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described the terms: "We say in the text of the draft resolution that if cooperation is not forthcoming that we are prepared to consider further steps under article 41 of the [UN] Charter, which could imply things like sanctions, and I think it's important to be straightforward about that."
But two other permanent Security Council members, Russia and China, see the matter differently, and may use their veto to
block the resolution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his concern yesterday: "Perhaps it would not be right to mix criminal investigation procedures with international relations. Such an attempt is being made in the [draft] resolution and we met with our Security Council colleagues today, including permanent members, and discussed our concern."
Moscow has been close to Damascus since Cold War days, and the Russian Foreign Ministry said on 26 October that it will
block any attempt to impose sanctions.
But Mideast analyst John Lindley of the London-based Royal United Services Institute thinks there may be a compromise. "It's highly likely that some compromise will be reached with those two countries [Russia and China] to allow them at least
to abstain in the event of a UN vote," he said.
As for Syria itself, Damascus has strongly denied any involvement in the Hariri affair. It also denies prosecutor
Mehlis' assertion that it has been reluctant in its cooperation with the UN investigation.
And Syria's ambassador to the UN, Fayssal Mekdad, suggested the draft resolution is part of a long-running American campaign against Damascus.
"I really don't know if we can characterize it as a [UN draft] resolution or as a political statement by the United States
against Syria," he said. "This is a U.S. agenda against Syria. This is not something new. We have known all these elements, for not weeks or months, [but] for years."
But there is no doubt that Damascus is feeling the mounting pressure. During the weekend, in an attempt to prevent the
affair from growing any larger, Syria announced it is setting up its own inquiry into the Hariri murder. Officials have said
the Syrian effort will cooperate fully with the UN investigation.
This could be seen as a constructive development, insofar as the secretive Damascus regime appears to be moving towards
greater openness. But analyst Lindley sees it as superficial: "It is not likely to lead to a fundamental shift to more
democratic or transparent regime -- not least because, as the regime feels more fragile, it is likely to feel that it has
much less room to maneuver, that it is in a much less secure position, and is therefore unable to take domestic risks."
Damascus wants to avoid sanctions at all costs, but it's unlikely that its own inquiry will make any serious criticism
of men as powerful as Maher al-Assad or Shawkat.