- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

While no specific threats were directed at Damascus by the new U.N. Security Council resolution enacted Monday, the language leaves no room for ambiguity. Damascus must cooperate with the international community or face sanctions, or possibly even sterner measures.

Sponsored by Britain, France and the United States, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a tough resolution warning Syria to cooperate fully with its investigation into the killing of Lebanon’s former Premier Rafik Hariri.

The council made clear it acted under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, which provides for punitive action, including the use of force, in case of a threat to world peace. “With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors, and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East,” said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“Now the Syrian Government needs to make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior. Until that day comes, however, we in the international community must remain united and we must remain resolute in our pursuit of truth, our defense of justice, and our support of liberty for the brave and courageous Lebanese people,” said Miss Rice.

The resolution was adopted at a special session attended by 11 foreign ministers. It insists “Syria not interfere in Lebanese domestic affairs, either directly or indirectly, refrain from any attempt aimed at destabilizing Lebanon, and respect scrupulously the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of this country.”

Miss Rice had earlier said President Bush had all his options regarding Syria on the table, including military intervention.

Syria reacted by calling for an emergency Arab League summit, hoping it could garner the Arab world’s support in the face of mounting pressure from the United States, Britain and France. But Arab leaders, wary of upsetting the Bush administration, already show signs of divisions, with diplomats arguing for a more restrained meeting that would limit the summit to Syria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon, instead of the full 22-member League.

Only hours after the council voted 15-0 to endorse the resolution requesting that Damascus cooperate with the U.N. investigation, its chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis, returned to Beirut. He is expected to expand his investigation to Syria.

A sterner resolution would have been preferred by Britain, France and the U.S. but was prevented by Russia, China and Algeria. Russia praised the compromise, saying the watered-down version emphasized a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

“The threat of automatic sanctions against Syria as a state was removed. Attempts to accuse Damascus without any proof of involvement in terrorist activities were set aside,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The new resolution provides Mr. Mehlis new powers. They allow him to demand any documents he feels needed to advance his investigation, and allows him to interview any official in Syria he believes will benefit his case. The new U.N. ruling demands a travel ban on all suspects in the assassination and for Syria to detain these suspects and freeze their assets.

Mr. Mehlis’ mandate was extended until Dec. 15, when he is to report back to the council. Between now and then Damascus must weather an unprecedented political storm. The man caught under the darkest cloud in that storm — for the moment — is Syria’s president. Yet, as Patrick Seale, a longtime observer of Syrian politics notes in a recent column in Beirut’s Daily Star, the current situation provides “Syria’s President Bashar Assad with a golden opportunity. For the first time since he came to power in June 2000, he has a unique chance to impose his authority on rival power centers and emerge as the real ruler of Syria.”

Before he can do that, Mr. Assad needs to sideline two of the most powerful men in Syria; his brother Maher, and his brother-in-law, Asef Shawqat. That will not be easy. Maher Assad, the brother, commands the palace praetorian guard; Mr. Shawqat runs the dreaded Mukhabarat, the secret police.

“Bashar,” says Mr. Seale, is “encouraged by his own people to act. They are encouraging him to carry out a ‘corrective movement’ against undisciplined barons of his regime, including men close to him, similar to the palace coup which brought his late father, Hafez Assad, to power in 1970.”

Mr. Assad’s choice, Mr. Seale notes, is clear: Either maintain Syria’s innocence of the Hariri killing and claim the Mehlis report’s charges are unsound and politically motivated, or recognize mistakes have been made and purge the top security officials named in the report.

But what would Mr. Assad then do with his brother, brother-in-law and his sister Bushra? If they are guilty, the smartest move would be to hand them to an international tribunal and take full control of the country, open up to the West and begin seriously thinking about peace.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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