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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 024 - (31/10/05)

The Mehlis Report and Sanctions
Syria has two options. The first is to join the pro-American camp that has swept in the official circles of North Africa and the Middle East, highlighted by the apparently spontaneous decision by Libya to surrender weapons programs and abandon 'terrorism'. Syria's second option, is not all that different from the first, except that it would join the pro-American camp by force - preceded by sanctions, a concept which it knows something about already, as this 'model' exemplified by Iraq. The two options revolve around a pivot point known as the Report of the International Commission on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, or the Mehlis Report, named after the German prosecutor appointed by the United Nations to investigate the case. 

The Mehlis Report
Toward the end of October, Detlev Mehlis delivered his report on the Hariri murder investigation to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The report has probably fuelled more debate and raised more questions than it has answered, while many observers say it is based on flimsy evidence and questionable testimony. The report, according to several independent observers, offers nothing resembling a conclusive culprit and explanation for the murder. Indeed, the very report suggests that further investigation is needed. However, the report mentions the scarce cooperation offered to Mehlis by Syrian authorities, while citing sufficient elements pointing to Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese involvement to enable international opinion - led by the United States - to conveniently place the blame on Syria as the main suspect. The main basis for indicting Syria is the report's final suggestion that Damascus could not have not have been aware of the murder, and that any such action would necessarily be taken with tacit Syrian approval, given the complexity of the preparations for such an attack. More specifically the Mehlis report points the finger against, without any tangible evidence, Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's brother Maher, and his brother in law Gen. Asef Shawkat, who is also the head of Syrian military intelligence. 
The German magazine Der Spiegel, in an article entitled 'Central Witness to Mehlis Report Revealed as a Paid Swindler,' moreover has questioned the viability of the Mehlis' report chief witness, Zuheir al-Siddiq, a former Syrian intelligence officer, who was convicted more than once for penal offences related to fraud. Der Spiegel also notes that the UN investigating Commission is well aware of the contradictions in al-Siddiq's testimony, as he first claimed to have left Beirut a month before the attack on Hariri, while also telling Mehlis during the questioning that he played a direct role in the murder. Der Spiegel has also suggested that Siddiq was an especially unreliable witness, because he had been indicated to Mehlis by Syrian 'dissident' Rifaat al-Assad, one of Bashar al-Asad's uncles, who has often claimed to be the 'other' president of Syria, having a clear motive for wanting to destabilize the government led by his nephew. The Syrian government, also says Der Spiegel, had actually sent warnings to western governments to alert them of the questionable nature of Siddiq's testimony, because he is an imposter. Therefore, it is no surprise that having found little in actual 'actionable' evidence, the UN Commission has asked for an extension of the investigation, postponing the presentation of less biased evidence to next December 15. However, this is not how the United States has reacted, seizing on the Mehlis Report to turn the screws on Syria in an unprecedented way. 
Nevertheless, what the Mehlis report does do, apart from prompting eager American efforts to isolate Syria even further, is noting that there has been scarce Syrian cooperation with the investigation, diplomatically hoping that Damascus might be more willing to collaborate in the forthcoming weeks. On Friday, October 28, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak made a surprise visit to Damascus to urge Bashar al-Asad to do just that, a suggestion that the Syrian president in a statement seems to have taken to heart, even while reiterating that Syria is in no way involved in the murder of Rafiq Hariri. He also said that if Syrians are involved, they should be pursued in an 'exemplary' manner. Adding to the puzzle is the mysterious death of Ghazi Kanaan minister of the Interior and head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon until 2002 reportedly by suicide. 

How the US will play the Mehlis Report
The Mehlis report gives hawks in the Bush administration the means to validate the US political position in the Middle East, while offering a distraction from serious internal problems highlighted by the indictment and resignation of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby. Syria has been presented as a 'rogue state', which has given support to the Iraqi resistance, allowing fighters to filter through a very porous border into Iraq. The Mehlis report helps the United States present Syria as having has held Lebanon in check for over 30 years - conveniently ignoring the stability it ensured after the civil war - preventing it from democratic development; Syria has also supported terrorist organizations in actions against Israel (as well as Iraq) through proxy groups like Hizbollah and by providing asylum to leaders of the Palestinian resistance of all political stripes. Of course, Syria is also guilty of not letting go of its ambition to regain the Golan Heights from Israel, an issue that has obstructed the achievement of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. More interestingly, in an approach reminiscent of the one used to build the case for war in Iraq, president Bush pounced on the Mehlis report. He urged the United nations from fulfilling its duty and act 'as soon as possible, ostensibly to punish Syria. While the diplomatic offensive builds, there was also news in October that Syrian and US forces have clashed, and that a Syrian soldier was killed during a skirmish last summer. In fact, US forces were engaged in prolonged battles near the Syrian border in eastern Iraq during the summer. Bush's words make absolutely no mention of the fact that the UN has postponed the presentation of the official report to December. There may be a little more advantage for the US position, as another report from UN special envoy Roed Larsen verifying the extent of the Syrian disengagement from Lebanon - and its related support for Hizbollah and Palestinian organizations fighting Israel - mandated by resolution 1559 is to be filed very shortly. 
It is very likely that the first move will come at the Security Council in the form of 'Libya' style sanctions, something supported by the UK as well, and to a lesser extent from France, which maintains overall good relations with Damascus, but which is also interested in rebuilding a role for itself in Lebanon. Yet, sanctions would be a very unwise move on the part of the Security Council. Syria's oil industry - even while serving as an important source of foreign currency - is not as strong as Libya's, and the population would face worse conditions than Libyans did during their period of sanctions from 1992 to 1999. Syria has an estimated 2.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Moreover, despite the decline of oil output and production, the World Bank has stated that the oil sector is generating 50% of the country's revenues. There can be little doubt that Syria's population is extraneous to the murder of Rafiq Hariri. The sanctions in Syria could have effects similar to those applied against Iraq, which suggests poverty and hunger will be far beyond what was witnessed in Libya. Libya's oil allowed it to weather the sanctions, as exploration continued, albeit to a far smaller extent than what is happening now. Indeed, even Walid Jumblatt, who had taken an anti-Syrian stance in the aftermath of the Hariri murder and Hariri's own son Saad, oppose the application of sanctions on Syria.
The Security Council's sanctions might well include a complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations. About 2.2 million Syrians lived under the poverty line in 2004 and 2005 and were unable to ensure their own basic needs, according to a study published in June by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Syrian Central Bureau for Statistics. The study also said 30% of Syria's 18.3 million people as poor and estimated unemployment to be at least 20%. It seems, Syria has done some preparations should sanctions be adopted (something, which will very likely take place). Managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, Nabil Sukkar, has already examined sanctions on Libya so that he would have an idea what could be awaiting his country. "If they only freeze assets of people mentioned in the report, Syria will not be affected," said Sukkar. "But if they freeze government assets, then it will be disastrous. But I don't think they will go that far." Sukkar told No doubt, there will be an arms embargo, which would prevent Russia from, legally, supplying the agreed military equipment to renew Syria's defence capacity. Russia is adamantly opposing the enforcement of sanctions. As was the case of Syria - and even Iraq, controlling oil exports might prove to be more difficult, and Syria might be able to retain some sources of foreign currency. US sanctions have been enforced against Syria for over a year, but the marginal amount of trade between the two countries has not caused significant damage. The Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources has still managed to award oil exploration contracts to such companies as Shell, Vancouver-based Tanganyika, Calgary-based Petro-Canada, Texas-based Gulfsands and Beijing-based China National Petroleum Corporation. However, some companies have abandoned Syria due to US sanctions and political pressure, such as Exxon-Mobil, Conoco-Phillips and Devon Energy.

Syrian Prisoner's Dilemma?
Nevertheless, the ever more vociferous call for sanctions by the United States also suggests that an attack against Syria, which has been rumoured for months, will be put off for the time being. The United States are now facing up to the fact they have lost over 2,000 soldiers in Iraq plus many more injured, and the country is still dealing with the enormous damage of the hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, Washington will certainly continue the pressure and the tough talk, even if economic sanctions will be the only weapon. Certainly, the Mehlis report has given Washington a non-negotiable tool with which to pressure the Syrian government. The US standpoint is viable because the Syrian government's main goal is its own survival. It is therefore ready to forego even some ideological stances to ensure this. In fact, Syria has done this, addressing US concerns over porous borders and assisting the US in dealing with suspected terrorists as the case involving Canadian citizen Maher Arrar has demonstrated. Syria has built a sand wall along its 600 km long border, deployed some 7,000 soldiers to patrol it, and more recently, it has been cracking down on would-be infiltrators into Iraq. Syria also closed the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus (but not its leaders). Syria also adopted a cooperative attitude toward the Palestinian president Abu Mazen, who pursued an independent peace process with Israel that excluded (and angered) Syria. However, Syria has not supported directly any of the US objectives in the Middle East, and the US pressure has really been nothing less than an effort to force Syria into becoming a 'partner'- at least one similar to Libya, which can be used to for public relations purposes to herald the wisdom of US strategy. Syria's support might be wanted to help the United States in defeating the insurgency in Iraq and bring Palestinians in line to accept Israel's limited offers. The latter is, easily, the most difficult (and probably the most important US demand) part for Syria to accept. The entire legitimacy of the ruling Baath party in Syria revolves around the notion of Arab nationalism and rejection of imperialism. Accepting US demands, even if this averts sanctions, might cause very serious domestic legitimacy issues, and infuriate the ideological wing of the party, which could easily leave Bashar al-Asad standing alone with America, if he 'sold' out.  

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