- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — No Syrian will participate in an international trial of suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a senior foreign ministry official said yesterday. He also warned that Lebanon is on the brink of civil war.

Speaking as his superior held a ground-breaking meeting in Egypt with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad insisted that any Syrian identified as a suspect in the February 2005 car-bombing that killed Mr. Hariri would be tried only under Syrian law in national courts.

Mr. Mekdad added that Syria would stand by that policy regardless of whether the long-delayed tribunal is convened at the request of the Lebanese government, as supporters of the plan hope, or imposed unilaterally by the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Mekdad granted the interview in his Damascus office as Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met with Miss Rice on the sidelines of an international conference in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.

Miss Rice, who had refused to meet with the Syrians for more than two years, said afterward that she had offered Damascus the prospect of a better relationship with Washington if it helps to stabilize neighboring Iraq. She remained noncommittal when asked to send a U.S. ambassador back to Syria.

In Damascus, Mr. Mekdad argued that U.S. efforts to isolate the government of President Bashar Assad have failed.

“It is the Bush administration that is isolated,” he said, adding that there was rising regional impatience with Washington’s “blind support” of Israel.

Regarding the Hariri investigation, he said Syria was cooperating with the U.N. probe “one million percent” and “respects the decisions of the Security Council,” but that any findings or evidence produced by that investigation might not be admitted in Syrian courts.

“We would accept findings that are appropriate and convincing,” he said. But he indicated that the Security Council’s judgment on the value of the evidence would carry little credibility with Damascus.

The Syrian government has dismissed as biased and politically motivated the findings of the original U.N. chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis of Germany, whose October 2005 report implicated senior Syrian intelligence and military officials in the Hariri bombing, which also killed 22 others.

Mr. Mehlis was replaced by Serge Brammertz of Belgium, who has not issued such specific interim findings.

“Mr. Mehlis was a very biased person who took only the views of one side,” said Mr. Mekdad, who represented Syria in the Security Council in 2002 and 2003. “He committed falsifications.”

Nicolas Michel, the U.N.’s top legal officer, told reporters in New York on Wednesday that he saw “no progress” in efforts to broker a deal on the tribunal during a recent trip to Beirut. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is not expected to make a recommendation on how to proceed until later this month.

Asked about Syria’s hard line on the tribunal, a U.N. official, speaking on background yesterday, said the world body was focused entirely on getting the tribunal established.

“We are not going to speculate right now on hypotheticals about extradition policy or cooperation from other nations,” the official said.

The United States and France have been the strongest backers of an international tribunal to pursue the case. U.S.-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parties allied with the late Mr. Hariri have also pushed for the tribunal.

But the Shi’ite movement Hezbollah and other factions in Lebanon with ties to Damascus have blocked the parliament from formally asking the United Nations to convene the tribunal.

Mr. Muallem warned Mr. Ban last week that bloodshed would follow if the Security Council voted to establish the tribunal without a formal request from the Lebanese government.

Mr. Mekdad reiterated that view yesterday, saying, “The current situation in Lebanon is a recipe for war.”

He said President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, who leaves office May 16, “are supporting one side [in Lebanon] against the other. But without consensus, Lebanon will face a lot of difficulties.”

“We are advising our brothers in Lebanon to help each other and help them come to an agreement,” Mr. Mekdad said.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese died in a 15-year civil war that ended in 1975. Syria helped to restore an uneasy peace that included the presence, until early 2006, of some 25,000 Syrian troops stationed inside Lebanon.

But a U.N. Security Council resolution in the wake of the Hariri killing led to the withdrawal of the Syrian troops and Mr. Mekdad said they “will absolutely not go back.”

He denied charges — based on evidence from Israeli reconnaissance planes — that Damascus has resumed the shipment of illicit weapons to Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian elements inside Lebanon.

Nicholas Kralev in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, and David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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