- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

In the wake of the Feb. 14 bombing in Beirut that killed 20 persons, among them former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syrian strongman Bashar Assad now finds his occupation of Lebanon under fire from a most unlikely source: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Last week, a U.N. fact-finding mission dispatched to Beirut by Mr. Annan to review the Lebanese investigation and legal proceedings and examine the crime scene and evidence gathered by local police issued its report. While it does not explicitly blame Damascus for the crime, the report nevertheless constitutes a scathing indictment of the performance of Lebanese authorities in investigating it. The panel’s report also makes clear that Syria is to blame for much of the chaos and violence in Lebanon today. Mr. Annan is calling for an international inquiry into the Hariri murder.

Considering the United Nations’ longstanding practice of ignoring or minimizing Arab regimes’ predatory treatment of Arab peoples, the executive summary of the U.N. report, published Saturday in the Beirut Daily Star, is particularly devastating in its conclusions about Syria and the Lebanese authorities who are allied with it: “After gathering the available facts, the Mission concluded that the Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon. The Lebanese security services have demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus. In doing so, they have severely failed to provide the citizens of Lebanon with an acceptable level of security and, therefore, have contributed to the propagation of a culture of intimidation and impunity. The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.”

Further, the U.N. report notes that “the Government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination of former Prime Minister Mr. Hariri. The Government of Syria clearly exerted influence that goes beyond the reasonable exercise of cooperative or neighborly relations. It interfered with the details of governance in Lebanon in a heavyhanded and inflexible manner that was the primary reason for the political polarization that ensued….it is obvious that this atmosphere provided the backdrop for the assassination of Mr. Hariri.” The U.N. mission notes that last year, Mr. Hariri tried unsuccessfully to persuade Mr. Assad not to support an extension of the term of Lebanese President Emil Lahoud. Mr. Assad replied by threatening Mr. Hariri and Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt with physical harm. (Mr. Jumblatt’s father, legendary Lebanese Druze politician Kemal Jumblatt, was assassinated in 1977, allegedly by Lebanese aligned with Mr. Assad’s father, Syrian President Hafez Assad.)

The U.N. report adds that it became clear that “the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion.” To get to the truth about Mr. Hariri’s murder, it will be necessary to create an international independent commission to investigate. But according to the U.N. panel, “it is more than doubtful that such an international commission could carry out its tasks satisfactorily — and receive the necessary active cooperation from local authorities — while the current leadership of the Lebanese security services remains in place.”

Syrian officials have angrily rejected the U.N. report, which comes at the worst possible time for them. As Damascus comes under mounting pressure from Washington to end its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, the Jordanian government headed by King Abdullah has become increasingly open about challenging Mr. Assad. Syria is furious that Jordan has returned its ambassador to Israel and stated that Arab governments need to jettison the hardline maximalist negotiating stance toward Israel that is favored by Mr. Assad. Syria’s state-controlled press has lashed out at Jordan, denouncing it for behaving in a satanic, treacherous way because it has indicated support for the Bush administration’s view that Syria should comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls on the regime to leave Lebanon. Current trends don’t bode well for the aspirations of the Ba’athist strongman in Damascus.

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