- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The repercussions of the U.N. report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri are causing shockwaves in Beirut and Damascus — but mainly Damascus.

“Assad is trapped,” said a high-ranking Western diplomat in Washington, commenting on the 56-page report drafted by Detlev Mehlis, the U.N.’s German prosecutor investigating the assassination of Hariri.

The Western diplomat was referring to the political corner into which Syria’s President Bashar Assad seemed to have painted himself in over the killing of the former Lebanese politician. The Syrian president, foreign diplomats believe, does not have much of a choice regarding the next step in the investigation. Mr. Mehlis requested greater cooperation from Syria, which he accused of holding back.

“When the commission attempted to get the cooperation of the Syrian government in pursuing these lines of the investigation, the commission was met with cooperation in form, not substance,” states the Mehlis report.

“The commission has concluded that the government of Syria’s lack of substantive cooperation with the commission has impeded the investigation and made it difficult to follow leads established by the evidence collected from a variety of sources. If the investigation is to be completed, it is essential that the government of Syria fully cooperate with the investigating authorities, including by allowing for interviews to be held outside Syria and for interviewees not to be accompanied by Syrian officials,” added the Mehlis report.

Either Mr. Assad cooperates with the inquiry or he refuses. If he refuses, said the Western diplomat, it means Syria is behind the plot.

But some Western sources believe Mr. Assad is not entirely in control of the situation in Damascus and his hands may be tied.

“Bashar controls less than his father did,” said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified by name.

The same source said one gets the feeling that “no one is in charge.”

The very fact Hariri was assassinated is proof of the regime’s weakness. What was accomplished by the killing of Hariri was exactly the opposite of what was wished for by Damascus — greater control over Lebanon.

At this point, both the European Union and the United States hope to avoid reaching the point where sanctions have to be imposed upon Syria to get it to cooperate. There is still hope among Western powers they can maintain unity in the U.N. Security Council when it comes to putting pressure on Damascus, and count on all votes, including Algeria, Russia and China. They also hope to garner support of Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

As to exactly what is going on in Damascus, “nobody knows” Western diplomats say. The great fear among not only European diplomats, but also the Turks and the Israelis is if Bashar were to be pushed out of power, no one knows who would be his likely replacement. Bashar, said a Turkish journalist, is a known entity. “At least we know what we are dealing with.”

Europeans, Turks and Israelis believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political group in Syria currently organized enough to be in a position to replace the Ba’aths.

Syria responded to the accusations through its ambassador in Washington.

“Syria is astounded, dismayed and disappointed,” by the U.N. report, said Imad Mustapha.

“I am flabbergasted by the illogical findings reached by Detlev Mehlis,” Mr. Mustapha told a press conference Friday, shortly after the report was published.

After nearly six months, Mr. Mehlis and his team of 100 investigators handed a 54-page report to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Thursday, in which they place much of the blame for the killing of the former Lebanese prime minister on Syrian intelligence officers and their Lebanese allies.

The Syrian ambassador claimed much of the report was based on testaments taken from “shady characters. From people who hate Syria.”

Mr. Mustapha accused the report of “flagrant bias against Syria.”

Going forward Western sources believe an international tribunal should be formed to judge those accused in Hariri’s assassination. Seeing that it remains highly unlikely that high-ranking Syrian officials will reply to a summons from a Lebanese court, one diplomat suggested forming a tribunal similar to the one set up for Lockerbie, when Libyan suspects blew up an American airliner over the Scottish town. When Libya refused to hand over its nationals to a Scottish court, a compromise was reached with the Scottish judges holding court in The Hague. A similar scenario could be put into place to judge the Hariri case.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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