Wednesday, September 28, 2005

In a rare instance of U.N. willingness to vigorously investigate rogue states implicated in terrorism, the team investigating the Feb. 14 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 20 other people appears to be building a case that the Syrian government was behind the murder. Lebanese and Syrian dissidents assert that the Syrian Ba’athist regime of Bashar Assad could be destabilized if the probe, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, concludes that it had a hand in the slaying.

Mr. Assad, who has said from the start that his government had nothing to do with Mr. Hariri’s death, has good reason to be concerned about the U.N. investigation. In March, the Beirut Daily Star published excerpts from a U.N. fact-finding commission. The panel’s report constituted a scathing indictment of the performance of Syrian Military Intelligence and Syrian-dominated Lebanese security services, which it criticized for having “demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus,” saying that both “bear primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon.” The U.N. report said that last year, when Mr. Hariri tried to persuade Mr. Assad not to extend the term of Lebanese President Emil Lahoud by three years, Mr. Assad responded by threatening him with physical harm.

Syria may attempt to cut a deal, just as Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi did in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Col. Gadhafi handed two Libyan intelligence agents over for trial in an international court in exchange for a promise that the investigation would not implicate senior members of his regime. For now, the Bush administration has ruled out such a solution in Syria’s case.

Even though Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon five months ago, the threat from Syrian intelligence agents remains a major concern in Lebanon. Over the past year, Lebanese critics of Syria have been victimized by a grisly series of bombings, and prominent Lebanese politicians, including Rafiq Hariri’s son, Sa’ad, recently elected prime minister of the country, and Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt have been spending a great deal of time in Europe — allegedly for fear of assassination by Syrian operatives. Earlier this year, the U.S. government warned that prominent Lebanese had been targeted for assassination pro-Syrian elements.

The Lebanese believe that danger mounts as international pressure against Syria increases and Mr. Assad seeks new ways to create trouble in order to deflect attention from the Hariri investigation. The coming weeks could be an extremely difficult time for the people of that country.

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