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    Middle East
     Oct 25, 2005
The ball is now in Syria's court
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The findings of the United Nations-sanctioned Mehlis commission have ripped like a thunderstorm through Syria and Lebanon.

When parts of the 53-page report began to emerge at about midnight (Damascus time) on October 20-21, everybody turned on Arabic satellite TV. People were waiting to hear a clear sentence saying: "Syrian Mr X pressed the explode button on February 14, 2005, killing former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, under orders from Damascus."

Such an explicit statement was not made. A threat, rather than an accusation, was fired at Damascus in the Mehlis report, making it clear that it could not find concrete evidence against Syria. Had the investigation obtained something tangible to



incriminate the Syrians, by name, it would not have failed to include it in the findings.

Hariri, a billionaire politician, and 22 others were killed in a car bombing in the Lebanese capital of Beirut in February. The incident led to calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence agents who had been in Lebanon since the early stages of the country's civil war (1975-1980).

Despite suggesting the possible involvement of Syrian officials in the assassination plot, the authors of the report acknowledge that their findings are not conclusive. "The commission has checked and examined this evidence to the best of its knowledge," they wrote in the preface. "Until the investigation is complete, all new leads and evidence are fully analyzed, and an independent and impartial prosecution mechanism is set up, one cannot know the complete story of what happened."

Syria has to deal with another report this week, by UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. It accuses Syria of continuing "to maintain its direct military control of Lebanon through its agents in the Lebanese presidential palace, the army and intelligence organizations", according to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.

Syria also continues to supply the Shi'ite guerrilla group, Hezbollah, and Palestinian militants based in Lebanon with weapons, the report allegedly says.

Roed-Larsen's assignment is to oversee implementation of UN Resolution 1559, under which Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon after almost 29 years of occupation. The resolution also calls for the disbanding of all armed factions in Lebanon, including Hezbollah and Palestinian groups.

"The findings [of the Mehlis report] require strong follow-up from the Security Council," US ambassador John Bolton said. He did not use the word "sanctions", but made it clear that in response to the investigators' findings, Washington was looking at "a range of options".

To follow up on both reports, the US and other countries have been discussing language for two resolutions on Syria that are likely to be introduced to the UN this week. Sanctions against Syria are also under consideration.

The Syrian general and Mr X
Syria fell out with Hariri the minute it brought President Emile Lahhoud to power in Lebanon in 1998. Had it empowered Hariri at Lahhoud's expense, it could easily have kept him a loyal friend of Syria.

Yet the Syrians, fearing Hariri's international standing, alliance with the French, and financial influence, concluded that Hariri would be a headache. In the Mehlis report, section 95 deals with how General Rustom Ghazali, the head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, arrogantly dealt with Syria's "Hariri problem" with a Lebanese official named Mr X, generally believed to be Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament who is Syria's number-one man in Lebanon.

The taped phone conversation took place on July 19, 2004. Ghazali recounted a complaint by Lahhoud, who said that he could no longer rule Lebanon with Hariri. The Lebanese Mr X asks Ghazali if Syria could appoint a new government, and Ghazali replies: "Yes, we can appoint one. What could be the problem? We could name Boutros Harb." Harb is a Christian, and what Ghazali meant was that the Syrians could break the rules in Lebanon and name a Christian as prime minister, although the premiership historically goes to a Sunni Muslim.

Although determined to wreck Hariri, Ghazali does not tell Mr X that he wants to kill him. He makes no reference to murder. He only tells Mr X that he should get people to demonstrate against Hariri, specifically in Solidaire (the part of downtown Beirut that he had built) and Qraytem, where the Hariri Palace is located.

He tells the Lebanese official to let the demonstrations carry on "until he is forced to resign like a dog". He even refuses a suggestion to send Hariri a message to resign, saying that it would be used against Syria by Hariri with his "American and French masters" and that the prime minister would say that "they" forced him to resign.

By saying all of this, Ghazali shows great disrespect for the Lebanese and intense hatred for Hariri. The important outcome of the conversation is that he did not order Hariri's destruction by a massive explosion. He wanted to get rid of him politically. He did not say, "Let us blow Rafik Hariri to pieces."

The report adds (section 105) that the former member of parliament, Nassir Qandil, who is a Syrian stooge, "was tasked to implement a campaign aimed at ruining Mr Hariri's reputation on a religious and media level", probably as part of Ghazali's plan to ruin him politically and make him "the laughing stock and be pointed at as the person who ruined and indebted the country".

At any rate, on the day after the conversation took place between Ghazali and Mr X, the late Hariri came out and declared from Beirut that "he would not step down" because of recent political movements directed against him. He said: "These campaigns are not new and have been going on for the past 12 years. They will not be behind my decision to step aside."

The controversial Assad-Hariri meeting
Then came the famed meeting between President Bashar Assad and Hariri on August 26, 2004. The Mehlis report based its findings on this meeting on the testimony of eight interviewed officials, none of whom were present at the Assad-Hariri summit in Damascus (section 27).

Reportedly, Marwan Hamadeh, Bassem al-Sabae, Ghazi al-Aridi and Walid Jumblatt (all former ministers under Hariri) had met at Jumblatt's place in Beirut awaiting Hariri to return from Syria. He had gone to Damascus to voice his opposition to the extension of Lahhoud's mandate.

He came back at 1 pm, meaning that his meeting had been brief. Each of the Lebanese officials told Mehlis that Hariri was tense, and one described him as "sweating". All of them said that Hariri described his meeting with Assad in very bad terms, saying that the Syrian president had threatened "to break Lebanon on your head and Jumblatt's" if "[French President] Jacques Chirac puts me out of Lebanon".

Hariri reportedly said that Assad told him, "This is not about Emile Lahhoud, it is about Bashar al-Assad." He also threatened that if Jumblatt had Druze in Lebanon, then he had Druze in Syria and that he (Assad) "is ready to do anything" to get his way in Lebanon.

An extra Lebanese witness is Gibran Tweini, a parliamentarian and publisher of the mass circulation daily an-Nahhar. More radical in his stance toward Syria, but at the same time more loyal to his convictions than someone such as Jumblatt, who had been a Syrian stooge in the 1990s, Tweini confirmed that Hariri told him in late 2004 that he had been threatened by Assad.

The Syrian president, according to Tweini, had "threatened to blow up" Hariri, along with members of his family. All these statements were confirmed and repeated by Saad Hariri, the eldest son and heir of the slain premier.

The report gives a lot of weight to these findings, without noteing that all of these men were some of the loudest anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon. By logic, their words could be biased, since they were likely searching for an opportunity to incriminate Syria.

It is difficult to believe that Hariri would have confessed such a statement to Tweini, who was neither a close friend nor a member of the Hariri bloc. The Syrians who talked about this meeting were Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara and General Ghazali.

The Syrian minister denied that violent language had been used, and so did the general, who added that when he met Hariri right after the prime minister had returned from his meeting with Assad, "Hariri looked relaxed." He said that Hariri had told him that the meeting had been "cordial and brief".

Then comes the phone conversation between Hariri and Walid al-Moualim, the deputy prime minister of Syria, on February 1 this year. They discussed the extension of Lahhoud's mandate, and the conversation was tapped and given to Mehlis. In it, Hariri tells Moualim: "He [President Assad] sent for me and told me: 'You always say that you are with Syria. Now the time has come for you to prove whether you meant what you said or otherwise.' He did not ask my opinion. He said: 'I have decided.' He did not address me as prime minister or as Rafik or anything of that kind. He just said: 'I have decided.' I was totally frustrated, at a loss. That was the worst day of my life. He did not tell me that he wished to extend Lahhoud's mandate. All he said was, 'I have decided to do this. Don't answer me, think and come back to me."

This is the only recorded evidence by Hariri on the Assad-Hariri meeting. It certainly does not confirm the story that Assad threatened to kill Hariri, as relayed by his son and Jumblatt. It shows that Assad ordered Hariri over Lahhoud. He did not threaten him.

Planning to commit murder?
At the time of the reported conversation between Ghazali and Mr X, the Mehlis report adds, a decision was taken in Damascus to kill the Lebanese premier. The decision was made in July 2004 and planned until December 2004. The meeting in which the decision to kill was taken was reportedly held in the Syrian capital between Syrian and Lebanese officials, first at the Meridian Hotel and then at the presidential palace (section 96).

This information is gathered from a Syrian witness, who was not identified, who used to work with Syrian intelligence in Lebanon. Again, had this information been backed with evidence, such as recorded talks, pictures, more than one witness, then one could not but believe it.

But the only basis for such an accusation is the testimony of the unnamed Syrian witness. This raises several questions: How would an average agent in the Syrian intelligence service know of such a supposedly high-level meeting? And in planning such a crime, couldn't these Syrian officials have chosen a more concealed and less public place than the Meridian?

Afterall, such a crime requires great secrecy, and not only is the Meridian Hotel tapped (as everybody in Syria knows), but it is also filled with undercover agents of different intelligence agencies disguised as waiters.

And likewise, had the palace been involved, the least the organizers could have done is conduct meetings as far away as possible from the presidential palace to prevent suspicion and the slightest chance of a leak.

Finally, how would the Syrian witness know so much about these meetings if he were not a member of the very closed crime circle (which Mehlis claims he is not). Surely, such a delicate crime was not public knowledge that an officer in the Syrian intelligence in Lebanon "stumbled" across.

The Syrian side is that this unnamed witness was bribed into incriminating Syria, either by some Lebanese politician, or by Rifaat Assad, the dissident uncle of President Assad, who longs for power.

These Syrian claims have been backed by the prestigious German political magazine, Der Spiegel. It said that one of the witnesses, Zuhayr al-Saddik, on whom the Mehlis report relied heavily for its findings, was a dubious person who had a criminal record in Syria and therefore could not be trusted or believed.

The magazine raised serious doubts about Saddik's statements and surprise that the Mehlis report attached so much weight to them. The report adds that Saddik had been paid to incriminate Syria, and that he had contacted one of his siblings from Paris after giving his testimony last summer, saying: "I have become a millionaire."

The Syrians are now saying that Saddik is an imposter, claiming that the Mehlis report should verify if the witness made correct statements before publishing them as facts. Indeed, the report even says, "At the present stage of investigation, a certain amount of information given by Mr Saddik cannot be confirmed through other evidence."

If, after months of investigation, Mehlis could not confirm what Saddik said, why was it in the report? Probably, from a legal point of view, it was just to show what the witnesses said (which is professional), but the manner in which Saddik's testimonies are written brings the world to believe that Saddik has high credibility. People wanting to interpret the report politically can use Saddik's statements against Syria, similar to how former Iraqi officials who had fled to the US in the 1990s came out to "confirm" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

This unnamed Syrian witness said that a senior Syrian officer told him in January this year that Hariri was a problem for Syria. One month later, this same officer said that there would be "an earthquake" in Lebanon that would re-write Lebanese history (section 97).

This statement, from a legal point of view, is ridiculous. Two unknown people are talking in ambiguities. How can Syria respond to such an accusation if it does not know the name of the witness or of the officer? Had the report said: Syrian officer X told witness Y said that an "earthquake" would happen in Lebanon, then Syria would have no choice but to question and arrest Mr Y if his answers were unsatisfactory. By not mentioning names, the report gives the Syrians very limited room to respond or be proactive.

This same witness says that he had visited several military bases in Lebanon and at one base he had seen "a Mitsubishi van" and not "the Mitsubishi van" that was used to carry the explosives to kill Hariri on February 14 (section 98).

He saw this van on February 11, 12 and 13. He adds that at one point he was at a Syrian camp in the resort of Zabadani, near Damascus, and saw the same van being loaded with explosives in the presence of Ahmad Abu Addas, the man who claimed responsibility for the Hariri murder, then disappeared on February 14 (section 110).

The Syrians claim that the camp was used for education purposes. The Mehlis report says that irregular activity was recorded there on September 5-9 this year, to change its features to make it seem educational, whereas in reality it was a military base when the explosives were planted in the Mitsubishi van nine months earlier.

And why was the van loaded with explosives so publicly? The least the Syrians would have done is load it in secrecy. And they would not have permitted an outsider, such as the Syrian witness, who is not a camp official, to view the act and run the risk of him remembering it.

Ahmad Abu Addas showed up in a taped broadcast on al-Jazeera TV hours after the assassination, claiming that he had killed Hariri because the Lebanese premier had been an infidel. Everybody speculated at the time that the video was rubbish, planted by the real murderers to conceal their identity, muddle investigations and link the murder to al-Qaeda-style terrorism.

The witness claims that Abu Addas had no role to play in the crime, but was just used as a decoy by the Syrians. Then he contradicts himself and says that Abu Addas was there when the explosives were planted in the Mitsubishi. The witness claims Abu Addas recorded the tape claiming responsibility for the assassination in Damascus, weeks before the assassination, while held at gunpoint by Assef Shawkat, then the deputy director of Syrian Intelligence, who was promoted to director on February 14, the day Hariri was killed (section 178).

Yet if he was a decoy only used for the video, how is it that he was around when the bombs were being planted? With regard to Abu Addas being threatened by Shawkat, the Syrians immediately remarked that there was no evidence that Shawkat threatened Abu Addas because Shawkat denied this and Abu Addas is reportedly dead.

The witness adds that 15 minutes before the murder he received a phone call from a Syrian official, telling him to flee the scene immediately. If the witness knew the location and timing of the crime, why was he in the vicinity of the St George Hotel on February 14? Why didn't he name the official who told him to flee the scene? Had he done that, the Mehlis report could have demanded that Syria bring him to a court of justice, and if Syria failed to comply, Mehlis could have unleashed hell on Damascus at the Security Council.

Two versions of the report
Another witness met with Mustapha Hamdan, the head of the Lebanese Republican Guard and close to Lahhoud and the Syrians. This witness claims that Hamdan said that they were fed up with Hariri and wanted "to send him on a trip. Bye-bye Hariri!" (section 103).

The witness continues, saying that the decision to kill Hariri was taken by the Lebanese generals, Jamil al-Sayyed, Mustapha Hamdan, Ali al-Hajj and Raymond Azar. They planned the move with Ahmad Jibril, the Palestinian renegade and veteran resistance leader based in Damascus, and top Syrian security officials, including Assad's brother Maher, his brother-in-law Assef, along with General Hasan Khalil, the director of Syrian intelligence, and Bahjat Sulayman, the director of internal security in Syria.

Khalil retired from office in February this year, while Sulayman was retired by Assad in June. These Syrian names were all included in the initial report handed to US Secretary General Kofi Annan on October 20, but deleted by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor from whom the report takes it name, in the version given to the media.

Mehlis explained this by saying that he did not have any evidence incriminating any of these people and their names were just mentioned by the unidentified Syrian "witness". Another important part of the original report handed to Annan was a reference to how the investigation had been influenced and manipulated at times by politicians in Lebanon.

This statement, which has been ignored by the media, damages Mehlis's credibility and benefits the Syrians. To quote the actual text of the document that was omitted in the circulated copy: "Certain Lebanese media had the unfortunate and constant tendency to spread rumors, nurture speculation, offer information as facts without prior checking and at times use materials obtained under dubious circumstances, from sources that had been briefed by the commission, thereby creating distress and anxiety among the public at large and hindering the commission's work when the focus should have been mostly on security issues." The additional omitted phrase reads: "A number of Lebanese political figures added to the climate of insecurity and suspicion, by leaking info to the press or by revealing sensitive date without the prior consent of the commission."

Syria's response and world opinion
Syria has responded to the report through a news conference by Riyad al-Dawoudi, the legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They chose Dawoudi because he is calm, independent, a respected attorney and more credible than most officials in Syria.

He said that the Mehlis report had been "influenced by the political atmosphere that prevailed in Lebanon". He added that the report had relied on "pre-set ideas to reach conclusions that are of a political nature and that point to Syria as a suspect with no evidence". He expressed deep regret that Mehlis had relied on the witness of people who were known for their anti-Syrian stance and "ignores" the witness of Syrian officials.

From Washington, Syrian ambassador Imad Mustapha added, "The report is full of political rumors, gossip and hearsay, and it has not a single shred of evidence that will be accepted by any court of law. We are so disappointed with it." He, too, added that the report was political rather than professional, prompting Bolton to say that this remark was "ridiculous".

Bolton added that the report "speaks for itself" and is backed by "substantial evidence". Stronger words were used by US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush said that Mehlis's findings were "deeply disturbing" and added that "the report strongly suggests the politically motivated assassination could not have taken place without Syrian involvement". Rice demanded "accountability" for the Syrians and said, "We cannot have the specter of one state's apparatus having participated or having been involved in the assassination of the former prime minister ... of another state." British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw condemned Syrian "arrogance", and the EU added: "Syria will harm its own interests if it does not fully cooperate with the inquiry." For its part, France described the report as "professional". The Mehlis report makes a strong political message, although it sends contradictory signals to the Syrians. It does not say that they are 100% involved in the assassination, nor does it name the Syrian who "pulled the trigger". It creates a lot of theories about Syrian involvement, but does not confirm a single one.

The report reads, "There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former prime minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services."

It does not say that the decision was taken with the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials. Legally there is a big difference.

The report referred to many "witnesses", but did not mention the names of any of them, with the apparent intention of frightening the Syrians with a message: We know a lot - if you don't cooperate further, we will become more aggressive. Had it been up to Mehlis, even the name of Saddik would not have been leaked to the press.

In essence, the report is the last US and international warning to the Syrians. Phase two is likely to be another report in mid-December saying that "Syrian Mr X killed Hariri".

That is, unless the Syrians respond to all US demands in the Middle East, prime among them becoming a US watchdog in Iraq, helping disarm Hezbollah, distancing itself from Lebanon, and generally cooperating in the "war on terror".

To give some reassurance to the Syrians that the decision to wage war against Damascus has not yet been reached, the report concludes, "The commission is of course of the view that all people, including those charged with serious crimes, should be considered innocent until proven guilty following a fair trail." It adds, "If the investigation is to be completed, it is essential that the government of Syria fully cooperate with the investigating authorities, including allowing for interviews to be held outside Syria and for interviewees not [to] be accompanied by Syrian officials."

If anything, the report confirms one fact: regardless of its professionalism and whether it has concrete evidence against Damascus, it is a hard blow against Syria. It is the strongest and most aggressive international document targeting Syria since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was drafted in 1916 [1] and the French Mandate was imposed on Syria in 1920.

The Syrians should stop directing their efforts at saying that the report is political. Everybody knows it is, and everybody knows that there is strong support in parts of the West for Syria to be targeted and weakened, regardless of guilt or innocence. Syria, by this rationale, is going to be punished for its excesses in Lebanon, its decision to oppose the war on Iraq, for its support the insurgency and the resistance in Palestine.

Syria fits perfectly into the culprit's cage because it is no longer an internationally strong country. Syrian commentators and officials have been shouting "foul play". But does anybody in Syria have the slightest clue on how to work through the problem?

One way is through maximum cooperation with the UN and the US. One idea would be to broadcast and publicize the interviews made by Mehlis in Damascus. Another would be to allow Mehlis to interview more Syrians in Europe. The Syrians must realize that they are at their weakest point in decades. It simply is not their day in history.

Syria will have to swim with the current, no matter where it takes it, until it reaches shore or a tree to cling to. Mehlis wants to interview certain officials outside of Syria. So be it. He wants Syria to offer maximum cooperation. Let it be. He wants Syria to hand over any Syrian officials involved in the murder.

The Syrians must also cooperate with Washington on Iraq. They must make new allies in the international community to lobby on their behalf at international forums such as the UN, and with the US.

They must digest the new reality, that they are now out of Lebanon and that times have changed. In 1920, the Syrians protested the imposition of a French Mandate on Syria. When their objections amounted to nothing and the mandate was approved by the League of Nations, the Syrians accepted their fate, knowing that a great injustice was being done to them but realizing that they were powerless to stop it.

They lay low for some time, then began working with the mandate, waiting until circumstances allowed them to rise and write the mandate into history.

The Syrians this time are not as weak as they were in 1920. They have the ability to change things and patch up with the international community. The keywords for Syria today are "cooperation" and "wisdom". If the Syrians achieve both, then they can write the Mehlis report into history as well.

But the thousands of protestors chanting anti-American slogans in the capital on Monday could make this course of action difficult: the authorities are believed to have encouraged the demonstrations, and schools allowed pupils to join in.

Note
[1] The Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret understanding concluded in May 1916, during World War I, between Great Britain and France, with the assent of Russia, for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement led to the division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine into various French and British-administered areas. The agreement took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France. France gained control over modern Syria and Lebanon.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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