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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 026 - (01/01/06)

More trouble ahead?
Detlev Mehlis, The German prosecutor appointed by the United Nations to investigate the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, assisted by some one hundred agents and jurists delivered his second report to the Security Council in mid-December, two days before the deadline. The interim report had already pointed the finger toward Syrian intelligence, and the second one maintains this position. The prosecutor accuses Syria of having obstructed the inquiry, to have only partly and tardily collaborated with investigators, while reiterating his 'direct' suspicion that Damascus is involved in the murder of Hariri. Syria's accusations that some of Mehlis' most important witnesses, in reaching the conclusions of the first report, Zuheir Saddiq and Hossam Hossam were pressured and motivated by money offered by the Hariri family to testify against Syrian leaders was dismissed. Mehlis said there were other witnesses, who also pointed toward Syria. In November Damascus agreed to have five of its security intelligence officers interrogated by Mehlis in Vienna, and protested the renewed accusations, asking Mehlis to offer evidence. The UN prosecutor indicated that his committee is now reviewing the testimonies given by the five Syrian officers who were interrogated in Vienna several days previously, in order to decide whether he would recommend detaining them or have another round of interrogations with them. 
In an interview to the Saudi Ashsharq-al-Awsat newspaper Mehlis described the results of the interrogation processes in Vienna as fruitful. He said the interrogations there produced better information, than he was able to obtain when he met Syrian officials in Damascus. Mehlis also said that the report delivered to the Security Council only offers half of the Hariri mystery, even if he remains convinced that Syria played an important role. Mr. Mehlis also said he saw a link between the recent assassination of anti-Syrian journalist and lawmaker Jibran Tweni and a number of bombings that has rocked Lebanon since Mr. Hariri's assassination in February. However, Mr. Mehlis' comments in the newspaper interview were the first time he had so unambiguously pointed the finger at Syria. White House spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the United States is pleased with the decisions to extend the Mehlis mandate, while the EU expressed 'deep concern' over the report, urging Syria to continue to cooperate.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, where anti-Syrian feelings were heightened after the murder of the most prominent ant-Syrian journalist Tweni, there are renewed fears of the country descending into collapse, as the pro and anti Syrian factions interpret the Hariri murder and its investigation differently. Trad Hamade, the new minister of Labour of Lebanon and a Shiite from the Hizbollah party, represents that part of public opinion that sees the Hariri investigation as a sort of 'Trojan Horse' for American intervention into Lebanon. The Italian newspaper 'Il Manifesto' interviewed him. He accused Mehlis of failing to seek the truth in favour of a version of the facts that matches American needs. Hamade was one of the parliamentarians that blocked an attempt by the United States (supported by the bloc represented by Rafiq Hariri's son Saad) to prevent the Lebanese judiciary from running its own investigation into the Hariri murder. The Pro-Syrian factions would prefer to see the international investigation, such as the one led by Mehlis, help rather than substitute for the national one. Hamade also fears that the Mehlis inquiry has been so politicised that opportunities to find the truth have faded. Ultimately, Hamade returns to the Palestinian-Israeli problem as the pivotal point. The pro-Syrian factions fear that the Hariri murder, the investigation of which has served to alienate Syria both physically and morally from Lebanon, will help shift Lebanon away from the Palestinian and Syrian positions of a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. This would leave Lebanon to sign a separate peace with Israel, leaving Syria without any negotiating power over the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. In order to facilitate this, in fact, the US is pressing Lebanon to disarm the Hizbollah and Palestinian militias as mandated under UN resolution 1559 - the very same that led to Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon last April. 

UN Sanctions in 2006 ' la Libya'?
Given these stakes there is no doubt that in 2006, Syria will face a continuation of US pressure leading to possible sanctions, as has been threatened several times in 2005 after the Hariri crisis in February 2005. The importance of the investigation as a tool for Washington to apply pressure on Syria is that it seems to have replaced accusations that fighters filter into Iraq from Syria as the main reason cited by Washington in building its case against Damascus in recent months. In the summer of 2005, American troops raided the area of Al-Qaim in Iraq, near the Syrian border. The bombardments also affected parts of Syria and there were even reports that some Syrian border guards had been killed. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton repeated veiled threats against Syria, which leave little doubt that the UN will be itself pressured to apply sanctions against Syria. The United States has already started to enforce its own sanctions against Syria, while recalling its ambassador from Damascus, making communications between the two governments even more difficult. In late 2005, however, the continuous threats appeared to be part of a strategy to force Syria into accepting a 'Libyan' solution to its isolation. The 'theory' maintains that if the United States puts enough pressure against Damascus, as was the case with sanctions against Libya in the 1990's, Syria will give up weapons programs, provide further help in closing porous borders with Iraq and, presumably, give up some of its longstanding claims in the Golan dispute to enter the multilateral Middle east peace process. 
However, it is doubtful that sanctions and even limited military actions - such as the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli - will achieve any significant goals. Sanctions, in Libya, have shown themselves to be ineffective, as it is difficult to ensure that countries abide by them. In the mid-90's, although technically isolated, Libya continued to receive investment in oil exploration from companies based in Europe. Therefore, there was widespread refusal, outside the United States, to honour the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Meanwhile, Col. Qadhafi did not suffer politically, as the sanctions gave him an excuse to justify economic and social problems stemming from internal deficiencies. Nevertheless, the United States has taken any opportunity it could find in 2005 to put pressure on Damascus while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continued to threaten regime change, while refusing to rule out possible military action against Syria. However, as noted in 2005, the Mehlis investigation has likely also added internal pressure against the Syrian regime, from hard line elements within the Baathist generals. If President Bashar Asad is toppled, he might be replaced by a tougher Baathist, or Alawite, regime or a fundamentalist Islamist Sunni government. Meanwhile, even as the United States has not indicated exactly why it needs regime change in Syria - after all a stable Syria is in its interests as well - should it work to impose them through the United Nations (and its hawkish ambassador Bolton), it would merely help maintain the status quo. UN sanctions would force Asad to hold back on reforms, strengthening the hardliners, who have always viewed reforms with suspicion and isolate the Syrian people from the world, while impoverishing them at the same time. 

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