Syria on a knife edge

THE US AND FRANCE HAVE increased pressure on Syria to stay out of Lebanon and its affairs — warning Damascus it could face international isolation, especially if it does not also stop insurgents entering Iraq.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  September 25, 2005

THE US AND FRANCE HAVE increased pressure on Syria to stay out of Lebanon and its affairs — warning Damascus it could face international isolation, especially if it does not also stop insurgents entering Iraq. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice last week convened a donor conference in New York to rally political and economic support for the newly elected Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora. At the gathering — attended by UN secretary general Kofi Anan, as well as foreign ministers from France, Britain, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — Rice said Syria must be “true to the letter and the spirit of Resolution 1559”, passed in September 2004. The resolution calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanese soil, an end to foreign interference in Lebanese presidential elections and the disarmament of the Shiite Hezbollah group. Syria withdrew all of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon on April 26 after mounting pressure from the international community in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14. However, several reports that Syrian intelligence agents continue to operate in Lebanon and persistent allegations by the US that Damascus has turned a blind eye to insurgents crossing into Iraq have intensified the pressure on Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Assad was absent from a three-day world summit at the UN — a sign of the incremental seclusion of Damascus, according to observers, and of the less than welcoming atmosphere Syrian officials would have faced in New York. Initial reports suggested that Assad would head a Syrian delegation to New York, but he later pulled out. “Certainly, his [Assad’s] absence is significant. It was indicated to him very clearly that he would be isolated. He was going [to attend] for a reason — to see if he could set something up with the Americans. But the message was very clear from the outset — ‘no’,” Michael Young, a Lebanese commentator and an editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, told Arabian Business. “No doubt, it was significant that he didn’t go. But I think it was also a sign of reality. If he was just going to give a speech and be humiliated — he had no desire to do that,” added Young. In parallel, the UN team investigating the murder of the former Lebanese premier — headed by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor — has only served to add to the tension in Syria. Mehlis’s initial findings have resulted in the arrest of four former Lebanese security chiefs who are said to be talking to their interrogators and trying to cut deals. Last Tuesday, Mehlis arrived in Syria to question officials over the Hariri assassination, including, former military intelligence chiefs Rustom Ghazaleh and Ghazi Kanaan — who is currently minister of the interior. The Kuwaiti newspaper As Siyassah has alleged that Maher Assad, the brother of the Syrian president who heads the Presidential Guard, would also be questioned and Mehlis who has been tight-lipped about the investigation thus far has indicated his intent to question Assad. The UN is set to release a wide-ranging report on its findings regarding Hariri’s assassination in the coming months and the Daily Star’s Young believes it will be “a very powerful report”. “It may go higher,” said Young, when asked if he thought there was truth to the assertions. “It may go to Bashar. We don’t know what the report will say … but people are not fools,” he added. Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, who is currently in Damascus, believes things are muddled. “Things are extremely tense here and no-one knows where this Mehlis thing is going. The rumour is that Ghazi Kanaan … won’t be in the new [Syrian] government and one of the reasons to change the government now is so that he won’t be in it, because he’ll be one of the people questioned [by Mehlis],” said Landis. “This is what the government is concerned about, making sure that this touches the state as little as it can. The anxiety is that this goes right to the very top.” Landis sounded a cautionary note about any misconceptions some officials in Washington may have about regime change in Syria and about closure coming from the findings of the Mehlis report. “Everybody here is anxious that we’re going to get a failed state out of this … this is going to turn into a long wrangle — that the conclusions of the Mehlis report will not be completely clear and allow for a year and a half of wrangling over what kind of course to take ... which will provide the context for isolating Syria quite severely,” explained Landis. A recent story by the Paris-based Intelligence Online newsletter and the Lebanese daily An Nahar has made the situation even more complicated, however. The report asserts that a former Syrian army officer told Mehlis what kind of explosives were used in the Hariri assassination and claims that Hariri recorded his last face-to-face meeting with Bashar Assad. In the meeting Assad is to alleged to have told Hariri: “It is useful for you to know that [president Emile] Lahoud’s term will be extended no matter what … I shall not allow you to replace him with anyone else. You have to bear in mind that I am capable of destroying Lebanon, you included. “If I am forced to leave Lebanon, I will leave it a pile of rubble. Your ally Walid Jumblatt must realise the fate awaiting him. The death of his father is the best lesson for him,” Assad is reported to have told the former Lebanese premier. The French newsletter claims Hariri recorded his conversation using a spy pen, and provided copies of the threat to US president George Bush and French president Jacques Chirac before his assassination. “I think we should be careful. I’ve heard the story. The bottom line is it’s interesting as forensic evidence,” said Young. “But the Fitzgerald Report was convinced enough of the conversation that he [Fitzgerald] put it in the first UN report on Hariri’s killing. There were enough people with whom Hariri spoke. This would add to the veracity of it. The point, of course, is if there is such a pen and such an accusation, it may not well stop at Maher Assad and reach the very top — that’s the implication from such a story.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to the investigative committee looking into the killing of Hariri, told Arabian Business: “This [assassination] is a political decision. What is certain is that Mehlis will implicate other security individuals [Ghazi Kanaan and Rustom Ghazali]. A big finger is going to be pointed at Syria. What is certain is that these people didn’t act alone. In my opinion a high-ranking official in Syria made a political decision in this issue. It’s not possible that the buck stopped with a security official as to the decision to assassinate a personality like Rafik Hariri.” Landis believes the situation can go two ways for Syria. “If America is smart it will use the Mehlis report to squeeze Syria and say we’ll trade you Lebanon for lighter terms on the Mehlis report. This is the deal that’s waiting — you get out of Lebanon and we can make this thing go away.” However, if Syria and the US don’t come to an agreement, America may very well pursue sanctions against Syria at the UN Security Council with the backing of European countries. “That would be the ultimate club. That was the threat of [UN Resolution] 1559 — that if Syria didn’t behave France would join America in sanctions of some sort and it got Syria to move quickly,” said Landis. The rude awakening for Syria will come if European countries, which account for 60% of Syria’s foreign trade, implement sanctions against it. “This will only impoverish Syrians and turn this into another failed state in the Middle East,” said Landis. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist and social analyst who until recently was based in Damascus, is even more fatalistic. He said that “the whole thing [the Syrian regime] will come tumbling down before year-end”.

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