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If Syria is Guilty By: Michael Young
TechCentralStation | Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Late last week, Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on behalf of the UN Security Council, released a preliminary report on his inquiry, scheduled to be completed by mid-September. The Western media have given relatively little attention to the investigation; however, if Syria is found guilty, as many observers are beginning to foresee, this could lead to the destabilization of Syria's regime, if not to its actual downfall.

The preliminary report did not address the substance of what Mehlis and his team had found, though it did offer details allowing for some educated guesses. For example, the prosecutor, while admitting that further interviews of witnesses might extend the three-month deadline of his report (renewable for one additional three-month period), nevertheless mentioned that he expected his work to be completed on time. This may indicate, as sources close to the Hariri camp have maintained, that Mehlis has already completed the bulk of his inquiry, implying he has found a guilty party or parties. Nor have there been signs of faltering, since Mehlis underlined that the second month of the investigation had been a good one, with the team receiving particularly useful information.

Mehlis also highlighted the fact that Syria had refused to cooperate with the investigative team, which had asked to speak to five Syrians - four intelligence officials who had held posts in Lebanon, and, the London-based daily Al-Hayat alleged last week, President Bashar Assad himself. Initially, the Syrians, citing constitutional clauses, had refused to allow oral interrogations, and asked Mehlis to submit his questions via the Syrian Foreign Ministry, so they could be answered in writing. When the UN rejected this, and after warnings were directed at Syria last week, even from friendly countries such as Russia, Assad backtracked, telling the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in an interview published on Monday, that he would allow Mehlis to speak to Syrian officials after all.

If Assad is the "fifth man", then this would be particularly revealing. A previous UN report on the assassination, authored by the Irish deputy police commissioner, Peter Fitzgerald, specifically mentioned that the Syrian president had threatened Hariri in a meeting they held last August, when Syria effectively bullied the prime minister into endorsing an unconstitutional extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate. By raising this incident with Assad (and it is difficult to see how it would not come up in an interview), Mehlis would show he is not to be intimidated by wherever his investigation might lead.

While one must await the final report, the latest rumors in Beirut suggest that senior Syrian officials, including members of the Assad family, will be implicated in Hariri's death. Maybe, maybe not; however the accusation has received an echo from reliable sources, as well as from press reports, noting that Assad all but admitted to Syrian involvement (while exonerating himself personally) in a meeting he held last March in Riyadh with then-Crown Prince Abdullah, now king of Saudi Arabia.

What many Lebanese fear is that Mehlis might also implicate Hizbullah. There is nothing implying the party played a role in the Hariri assassination (though press reports mentioned that the UN team had asked for detailed maps of areas around the Palestinian camps in Beirut's southern suburbs, where Hizbullah holds sway). Some analysts hint the finger pointing may be manipulation, perhaps by the fearful Lahoud camp, to derail full disclosure in the inquiry, since involvement of the Shiite Hizbullah in the death of a Sunni politician raises the prospect of communal conflict. But few are especially sanguine. Last March, a senior Lebanese politician told me, "I do not discount Hizbullah's involvement in the assassination," though he offered no evidence.

Yet another rumor difficult to corroborate, published without attribution in internet and press reports, is that a Syrian intelligence officer who sought political asylum in France has been providing detailed information on the assassination to French intelligence, including names. One Arabic internet site, Elaph.com, identified him as Maj. Zuheir S. (his full last name was unspecified). Reference in the article to the intelligence service to which he belonged was unclear, but he apparently headed the office of the former Military Intelligence chief, Gen. Hassan Khalil. Again, however, the story should be treated with caution until Mehlis publishes his findings.

Amid all the rumors, one conclusion seems increasingly likely: Lebanese officials will be blamed for at least trying to cover up the crime. In an interview with France's Le Figaro in July, Mehlis described the head of the Presidential Guard, Mustapha Hamdan, as "a suspect." Few believe that Hamdan - in reality Lahoud, his superior and patron - was responsible for ordering the assassination. However, there have been numerous indications that the presidential palace sought to cover up the blast site soon after Hariri's murder. The Fitzgerald report specifically mentioned that evidence had been tampered with, concluding: "[T]he manner in which this element of the investigation was carried out displays, at least gross negligence, possibly accompanied by criminal actions..."

According to UN Security Council Resolution 1595, which established the Mehlis commission, it is Lebanon's judiciary that must prosecute those deemed responsible. In his preliminary report, however, the German investigator wrote that many witnesses were afraid of having their testimony handed over to the Lebanese authorities. It is ever more obvious that Lebanon's courts, given the country's political divisions and weaknesses, do not have the means to bring anyone to justice; nor its security agencies the wherewithal to protect witnesses, particularly if Syrian involvement is confirmed. This has led to growing speculation, buttressed by statements from Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad al-Siniora, that a special international tribunal might become necessary to act against the guilty. This would deeply alarm the Syrian regime (again, if Mehlis does find a Syrian connection), as it means Syria would become even more of an international pariah than it already is. That Assad could politically survive such pressure is doubtful.

In the coming weeks, we will know whether the Mehlis inquiry produces the "earthquake" that many have predicted it will. For the moment, the Lebanese are holding their breath fearing the Syrian backlash, but also hoping that Hizbullah is innocent, so that Sunni-Shiite tension can be averted. Everyone is anxiously aware that the truth may be painful.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.

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