After Hariri’s murder, Damascus is under fire

After Hariri’s murder, Damascus is under fire
Syria: a concerted offensive

All eyes are on Syria as it stands accused of being behind the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Even before the UN commission of inquiry was completed, the US was planning – with France – a concerted offensive against the Syrian regime. But destabilising President Bashar al-Assad could lead to regional chaos, given the fragility of Lebanon and near civil war in Iraq.

Ed: Article in full below

By Alain Gresh
Le Monde Diplomatique
December 2005

“IN ORDER to facilitate the action of the liberation forces, to reduce the capabilities of the Syrian regime to organise and direct its military actions, to keep losses and destruction to a minimum, and to bring about the desired results in the shortest possible time, a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals. Their removal should be accomplished early in the course of the uprising and intervention.? For that, Damascus must be “made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments?.

The CIA and its British counterpart would “use their capabilities in both the psychological and the action fields to increase tension?. The overthrow of the regime would also mean the financing of a committee for a free Syria and the arming of different political factions to give them paramilitary capabilities.

All this comes from a document dating from autumn 1957 that was recently discovered by a researcher (1). The document was approved by the United States president, Dwight Eisenhower, and the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

At that time the Middle East was already regarded, simplistically, as a place for East-West confrontation. The US and British governments saw the Syrian regime – which was then genuinely liberal and democratic, if nationalist – as no more than a Soviet pawn. That meant it needed to be got rid of and its leaders killed. However, a few months later, in January 1958, the Syrians went to Gamal Abdel Nasser to ask for Syria’s unification with Egypt. From the moment the new United Arab Republic was established, its relations with Moscow grew strained, and so the West’s subversive plans were dropped.

The world has since changed. The war against terrorism has replaced the war against communism. But the US vision remains as simplistic as it was then: whoever is not with us is against us, says George Bush. At the time of a “third world war?, of US efforts to crush the Iraqi resistance and beat the Arab world into submission, the reluctance of the Syrian regime to bend to Washington’s will can no longer be tolerated.

From 11 September 2001, even though Damascus was collaborating closely with the CIA in tracking down members of al-Qaida, the US administration launched an offensive against Syria (2). Leaks through the New York Times, which was earning itself a reputation for disinformation on Iraq, accused the Ba’athist regime of possessing weapons of mass destruction (3). Congress adopted the Syria Accountability Act on 11 November 2003, authorising the US president to decree sanctions against Damascus. Then on 11 May 2004, convinced that Syria was acting as a rear base for the growing insurgency in Iraq, Bush decreed economic and financial sanctions.

An unexpected ally

The US campaign lacked foreign intermediaries, especially in the context of the war onIraq. But then Bush found an unexpected ally in Jacques Chirac.

In June 2004, at the G8 summit at Sea Island in the US, the French president approached Bush and proposed a UN Security Council resolution demanding Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. This French departure (4) – the result of personal relations between Chirac and the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and disappointment with the achievements of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad – revived active collaboration between France and the US, as it was intended to, after a long disagreement on account of France’s refusal to legitimise the US war on Iraq.

At the time no one was yet talking about the Lebanese presidential election. But Syria’s decision, a few months later, to prolong President Emile Lahoud’s mandate by three years served as a pretext for UN Security Council resolution 1559. The resolution, which had already been formulated long before, was approved on 2 September 2004 – by the minimum required (nine votes out of 15). It required Syrian troops to leave Lebanon and demanded the disarming of the militias.

Then came Hariri’s murder on 14 February. That changed things, since the Syrian authorities were strongly suspected of the crime. Syria hastily withdrew its troops from Lebanon. The offensive against the Ba’athist regime now centred on an international inquiry under the commission headed by the German judge, Detlev Mehlis. Washington, delighted at the new cohesion of the “international community?, was more than happy to leave the initiative to Paris.

In October Mehlis submitted an interim report issuing a new warning to Syria, and demanding its unconditional collaboration with the commission – demands that were unanimously voted in by the Security Council. Reservations by Russia, China and Algeria only succeeded in removing the reference to eventual sanctions. Syria had until 15 December to comply; after that the Security Council could take steps against the Syrian regime and create an international tribunal to judge those believed responsible for Hariri’s assassination.

Washington’s appeal to international law has a curious ring at this moment in time, when the US is contesting the validity of the new International Criminal Court and pressurising dozens of states to sign agreements that will protect their nationals from litigation (5).

As we now know, UN commissions are not immune to pressure either. Richard Butler, the president of the UN special commission (Unscom), who was in charge of the inspectors in Iraq from 1 July 1997 to 30 June 1999, published false reports, dictated by the US, which served as a justification for the US-British bombing of Iraq in December 1998 (6).

‘The presumption of innocence stands’

The Mehlis report was only an interim one. Even if Mehlis said he was convinced that the assassination of Hariri could not have been committed without the knowledge of high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials, he added: “Until the investigation is completed . . . one cannot know the complete story of what happened, how it happened and who is responsible for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the murder of 22 other innocent people. Therefore, the presumption of innocence stands.?

This cautious approach was not shared by the media, which leaked a first version of the text, apparently by accident. That version implicated the Syrian president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, head of the powerful military intelligence. These names were omitted from the official version, but that did not stop the media acting as though Mehlis had already decided who was guilty.

An important part of the judge’s conclusions relies on two witnesses, neither necessarily reliable. According to the report, one witness “of Syrian origin but resident in Lebanon, who claimed to have worked for the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon, has stated that approximately two weeks after the adoption of Security Council resolution 1559, senior Lebanese and Syrian officials decided to assassinate Rafiq Hariri?. This man, who apparently had “close contacts with high-ranking Syrian officers posted in Lebanon?, added that meetings had taken place between Syrian and Lebanese officials to plan the attack, including at the Meridien hotel in Damascus. But how could this man have had this sort of information when he acknowledged that he only had a low-ranking position? And is it feasible that the officials would have met in one of Damascus’s premier hotels, in full view of the public?

The other witness is Zouheir Ibn Mohammed Said Saddik, whose revelations (in the first version) helped incriminate people close to the regime. Yet paragraph 114 of the Mehlis report states: “At the present stage of investigation, a certain amount of information given by Mr Saddik cannot be confirmed through evidence.? So why use it? Especially since the German magazine Der Spiegel has revealed that Saddik, arrested in October, modified his evidence several times and that he has been convicted for fraud and embezzlement. Some sources claim that he received money from Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s uncle, who lives in France and makes no secret of his ambition to take power in Damascus (7).

The report contains other approximations that analysts have brought to light (8). But it also contains serious assumptions that Damascus will have difficulty shying away from. “The Syrians should stop directing their efforts at saying that the report is political,? wrote Sami Moubayed, an independent Syrian journalist. “Everybody knows it is, and everybody knows that there is strong support in parts of the West for Syria to be targeted and weakened, regardless of guilt or innocence. Syria, by this rationale, is going to be punished for its excesses in Lebanon, its decision to oppose the war on Iraq, and its support for the insurgency and the resistance in Palestine? (9). He concludes that the Syrians have no choice but to collaborate with the Mehlis commission.

These threats have stirred up nationalist feeling in Syria, but that feeling is weakened by the regime’s authoritarian nature, the way the president’s family has taken over the centres of decision-making, and the level of corruption. On top of that, there is the regime’s failure to take account of ordinary people’s aspirations or listen to the demands of the opposition – whose symbol is Riyad Turk, the communist leader who spent 18 years in prison despite his well-known opposition to US policies. On the other hand, the regime’s room for manoeuvre seems reduced with the full weight of the Mehlis commission bearing down on Syria alone.

A limit to flexibility

Some Arab observers have suggested a Libyan scenario: the ending of hostilities surrounding Lockerbie and the downing of a UTA flight (10), and Tripoli’s renunciation of its programme of weapons of mass destruction, announced in December 2003, led to normalisation of relations between Colonel Muammar Gadafy and the West. Visits by European leaders to Tripoli have increased and people have dropped the question of Libya’s human rights record.

The question is whether, in exchange for normalisation with Washington, Syria could give up support for the Palestinian cause, rejection of Israel’s regional hegemony, and condemnation of the US occupation in Iraq. Crucially, could Syria’s Ba’athist regime make such a choice without undermining the very foundation of its legitimacy? The more so since it is persuaded that each new concession on its part would bring some new demand.

Bashar al-Assad’s speech on 10 November (11) reflected these dilemmas: he displayed firmness in the face of the pressures on Syria, yet showed a degree of flexibility on issues that preoccupy the West. He reiterated his support for Mahmoud Abbas and confirmed that Syria would support any peace settlement acceptable to the Palestinians. He also condemned all attacks on civilians in Iraq and said he was ready to collaborate with the US to make the Syrian-Iraqi border secure – though he pointed out that the US was unable to seal its own border with Mexico.

Assad launched a violent, clumsy attack on the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, which provoked strong reactions in Beirut, but at the same time he confirmed his willingness to collaborate with the Mehlis commission. So why did he not agree to the commission’s demand to interrogate certain Syrian officials in Lebanon? The answer is that UN resolution 1636, adopted on 31 October, poses serious problems of sovereignty.

The editor-in-chief of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, Joseph Samaha, reinforces that point: “The resolution sets up a ‘dual authority’ in Syria. In fact, it places the commission’s authority above that of the state and grants it total sovereignty over all Syrian citizens, rulers and ruled alike, just for falling under suspicion. What is worth noting is that this is the first time that ‘international law’ grants such powers to a non-elected body that is not subject to any form of oversight by the people concerned? (12). In addition, he says, it would establish a form of tutelage – of Lebanon over Syria – since the text proposes that, at the suggestion of the Beirut government, some Syrian officials could find themselves banned from travel and their assets frozen. Samaha concludes: “One man [Mehlis] has been granted absolute powers that far outstrip the powers granted to a military governor in a state of emergency.? What independent state could accept that?

In the end a compromise was reached on where the Mehlis commission is to interrogate the Syrians: it will be at the UN’s Vienna headquarters, not in Lebanon. The earlier choice of Lebanon was unacceptable to the Syrian regime for obvious reasons, and also made the Lebanese government fearful that relations between Beirut and Damascus would be put under even greater strain.

Are we none the less heading for a racheting up of tension? A sanctions regime against Syria would penalise its population first, as it did in Iraq. Closing Syria’s borders would create problems with its neighbours, starting with Lebanon. And the fall of the Syrian regime would only extend the regional chaos created by the US military intervention in Iraq and the ensuing occupation.

The Washington Post had this to say: “The planning process, according to the internal documents, includes courses of action for cross-border operations to seal the Syria-Iraq border and destroy safe havens supporting the Iraqi insurgency, attacks on Syrian weapons of mass destruction infrastructure supporting the development of biological and chemical weapons, and attacks on the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad? (13). The paper’s military commentator, who revealed these American plans, did not say whether, as in 1957, the assassination of Syrian leaders was part of the plans.

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