Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In a few days, or maybe weeks at most, Syria’s President Bashar Assad must make one of the most difficult choices of his career. He will have before him a confidential U.N. dossier on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri prepared by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In this dossier might quite possibly figure the names of two, three or maybe four Syrian high-ranking officials. A source close to the Syrian president confided in United Press International one name likely to jump out at the president might be that of his brother Maher.

Shortly after Hariri’s Feb. 14 assassination, Mr. Annan sent Mr. Mehlis on a one-month fact-finding mission to the Lebanese capital, to inquire into the circumstances of the assassination. Since neither the Lebanese nor the Syrians were about to go to great efforts to uncover the truth behind the killing, Mr. Annan vested broad powers in his German supercop. The monthlong assignment was expanded to several months.

Mr. Mehlis and his team met with hundreds of Lebanese officials; they combed through the downtown Beirut crime scene, examining every minute detail. After weeks of meticulous and painful detective work, the U.N. mission concluded, “The government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination.” Mr. Mehlis also blamed “the Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence,” whom he accused of carrying “the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon.”

The report added: “Syrian military intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.”

Hariri’s assassination prompted a countrywide nationalist reaction in Lebanon, demanding immediate withdrawal of Syrian military and intelligence units. Under the weight of the Lebanese opposition, who won the backing of France and the United States and the support of the U.N. Security Council in the form of Resolution 1559, Syria acquiesced and withdrew.

With the Syrians gone and a new government in place in Beirut, the hunt was on for those responsible, or who might have had a hand in Hariri’s killing.

At first, not many Lebanese expected much from Mr. Mehlis, nor did they believe anything would emerge from his investigation. At best, many felt the U.N. official would complete his investigation, file a lengthy report to New York and call it a day. But six months after the tragic assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister who was killed by a massive car bomb, the U.N. investigators and Lebanese internal security forces suddenly jumped into action armed with new clues, indications and arrest warrants.

By the end of August, the U.N.-led team arrested Mustafa Hamdan, head of the Lebanese Presidential Guard; Jamil Sayyed, former chief of the Surete General; Ali Hajj, former Internal Security Forces chief; Raymond Azar, former army intelligence chief; and pro-Syrian former Member of Parliament Nasser Qandil. Mr. Qandil was later released.

After questioning Mr. Hamdan, the investigation learned about two Beirut apartments used during the planning of Hariri’s assassination. This led to new clues.

Still Mr. Mehlis was far from done with his investigation. He had not yet identified any Syrian suspects, but the German investigator added there had been “problems” with Syrian cooperation. From the outset, Syria had consistently denied any involvement in Hariri’s killing, refusing to allow its officers to be interviewed.

All along Mr. Mehlis complained about the lack of Syrian cooperation. The Syrians denied him access to officials who were based in Lebanon before and during Hariri’s assassination.

But, as writes Robert Rabil, an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute, “In a dramatic reversal, Syrian authorities have invited Mehlis to Damascus on Sept. 10.” But “technical difficulties” prevented the trip.

In trying to reassure the Syrians, Mr. Mehlis has made it known he intends to interview Syrian officials as witnesses and not as suspects. But upon completion of his investigation, sources close to the Syrian regime fear Mr. Mehlis may include two names on the suspects list: One of the most significant figures is Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazaleh, former chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and who recently retired, and Maher Assad, the president’s brother.

“Ghazaleh may be handed over as quick as a fax,” the source who asked to remain anonymous told UPI. “But there is no way the president will hand over his brother to an international tribunal … The president would rather face sanctions than turn on his brother.”

As Mr. Mehlis wrapped up his investigation and headed for the Syrian capital, the mood in Damascus was “electrifying” confided a close friend of the Syrian president to UPI.

Bashar, who intended to travel to New York to attend the General Assembly meeting, has canceled his trip, preferring to remain close to home to better face any fallout from the U.N. investigation. And some fallout is indeed expected.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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