UN Probe May Put Syrian between a Rock, Hard Place


By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press
September 28, 2005

After other setbacks, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad could be shaken to its core if a UN investigation finds evidence of Syrian involvement in the death of a former Lebanese Premier.

It's been a rough year so far for Syrian President Bashar Assad, and it may get even rougher. With tensions high after another Lebanon bombing last weekend, Assad's regime could be shaken to its core if a U.N. probe points to Syrian involvement in the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister. So far this year, Assad has endured a humiliating pullout from Lebanon, ending 29 years of Syrian domination over its tiny neighbor. The man who came to power five years ago also has been at the receiving end of increasingly menacing U.S. demands to stop insurgents from going into Iraq. A U.N. probe into the Feb. 14 killing of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri is led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is due to present his findings to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Oct. 21. With only a few friends left to turn to, Assad flew to Egypt on Sunday to enlist the help of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, according to two officials familiar with the contents of their talks.

Mubarak: Cooperate

Mubarak advised Assad to fully cooperate with the probe and surrender any Syrians named by the U.N. investigators as accomplices in the killing, said the officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The Egyptian leader also counseled that Assad order a halt to harshly anti-U.S. comments by Syrian officials and in the state-run media. But Mubarak's plea for cooperation is potentially difficult for Assad because the search by U.N. investigators for conspirators could lead them to senior Syrian security officials , members of Assad's inner circle or even family members. Some Assad family members hold powerful positions in the intelligence and security services. Assad would be risking his credibility at home if he were to hand over suspects to U.N. or Lebanese investigators, especially because Syrian media and officials have for months been suggesting that the probe had a political slant.

No Easy Option

Failure to comply with extradition requests, on the other hand, could prompt the United States and France to take measures such as obtaining a U.N. Security Council resolution slapping punitive measures on Syria, including economic and trade sanctions. Or it could lead to the freezing of assets or even a ban on foreign travel by senior officials. ''He is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't,'' Rosemary Morris, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, said of Assad's predicament. "Who will trust him again in his country if he hands over Syrians to be tried?'' Syria's media, which reflects government thinking, all but ignored a visit to Syria last week by Mehlis to question officials in connection with Hariri's death.


Neither Mehlis nor Syria disclosed the names of the Syrians questioned by the U.N. team. Lebanese media have said they included Syria's last intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale; two aides; and Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, intelligence chief in Lebanon until three years ago. The Syrian media's treatment of Mehlis' visit, says dissident Michel Kilo, showed the absence of a cohesive government strategy to deal with a potentially dangerous issue. ''There has been confusion in the way we dealt with all major issues in the past two years,'' said Kilo, by telephone in Damascus. ``If half of what we hear is true, then we are faced with a very dangerous situation and have reason to be very concerned.''

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More Information on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon More Information on Sanctions

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