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Dark months for Syria
By Sami Moubayed
Al-Ahram Weekly
22-28 December 2005

In an interview with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper shortly before the second UN report into the death of Rafik Al-Hariri was issued, report author Detlev Mehlis said the upcoming months were `not going to be pleasant for Damascus`.

The worst points for Syria in the new Mehlis report were the testimonies of two of the five Syrian officials interrogated in Vienna on 5-7 December saying that all files related to the Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon were burned before the Syrian army left Lebanon in April 2005. Judge Ghada Murad, head of the Syrian Commission investigating the Al-Hariri affair, also told Mehlis that she had found no information related to Al-Hariri`s murder in the archives of Syrian Intelligence. Both these statements, apparently, are not believed by Mehlis. The `Syrian months` will probably see a new UN judge requesting information from Syria on why these files were burned, and who burned them. With not much room to manoeuvre or play political games due to UN Resolution 1636, which calls on Syria to fully cooperate with the UN, Syria cannot but respond to these questions with clear and logical answers.

Syrians were delighted that the Mehlis report did not name any senior Syrian official in the planning or execution of Al-Hariri`s assassination. They are also pleased that because of this situation, no sanctions will be imposed on Syria -- at least, for the time being. Also misleadingly pleasing to Damascus was the affair of Hossam Taher Hossam, the Syrian witness who showed up in Syria and said he had met Mehlis in Beirut and given him false information to incriminate the Syrian regime, working under bribes and pressure from the Beirut MP Saad Al-Hariri.

Several parts of the earlier report were in fact based on Hossam`s testimony, such as a statement saying that Syrian and Lebanese officials had planned to murder Al-Hariri at the Meridian Hotel in Damascus. The Syrians embraced Hossam`s story, thinking that it would humiliate Mehlis and get Syria declared innocent of Al-Hariri`s murder. Mehlis surprised them by sticking to Hossam`s original story, saying that the Syrian witness had changed it only after Syrian Intelligence had threatened members of his family in Syria. Another point seen as positive by Syria is that concerning Mohamed Zuhayr Al-Saddik, the other Syrian witness who is currently under arrest in France for his connection to the murder. Syria has repeatedly said that he is a liar. To Syria`s satisfaction, Mehlis found out, as stated in his new report, that Saddik was in fact a liar when samples of his DNA were taken and analysed with other evidence from an apartment in Al-Dahiyieh in Beirut where Saddik claimed to have planned the murder of Al-Hariri. The result of the DNA tests were negative. These points inject the regime with some confidence, felt through the official Damascus dailies, and a thinly veiled statement saying: `even if we are not declared innocent, let history record our side of the story.`

Mehlis also shed further light on the five Syrian officials he had interviewed in Vienna. The report said that `Syria must detain those Syrian officials or individuals whom the commission considers as suspected of involvement in the planning, sponsoring, organising, or perpetrating of this terrorist act, and make them fully available to the commission.` The five officials interrogated include Rustum Ghazali, the ex-head of Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon in 2002-2005. According to Mehlis, these suspects are `presumed innocent until proven guilty after trial.` To date, Syria has not arrested Ghazali, or any of the others, but they have been banned from travel.

All of these factors do not mean that Syria`s relations with the international community is going to improve in the upcoming `Syrian months`. Adding to Syria`s troubles was the murder of Gibran Tueni, the popular publisher of the mass circulation Beirut daily An- Nahar, who had been elected to parliament in mid-2005 after engineering the anti-Syrian demonstrations on 14 March, 2005. Tueni had been one of the loudest critics of Syria even during the heyday of its power in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. He was killed in a car bomb attack on 12 December, 2005. Immediately, anti-Syrian rhetoric came pouring out of Beirut. Many Lebanese reasoned that `the usual suspect` would be Syria due to its history of animosity with the slain journalist. His father, the veteran journalist Ghassan Tueni, did not blame Syria nor did he call for revenge. The parliamentary bloc of Saad Al-Hariri, of which Tueni was a member, immediately blamed Syria, saying: `by assassinating Gibran Tueni, the Syrian regime has renewed its war on Lebanon,` Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, another ally of Al-Hariri, also harshly criticised Syria, saying that Tueni was murdered by the Syrian regime, and calling on the international community to topple and trial it. Jumblatt escalated his war of words against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Then, in reaction to Tueni`s murder, Syria decided to condemn the murder, realising that delaying condemnation of the murder of Al-Hariri in February 2005 made it look guilty in the eyes of the Lebanese and the international community. But on 15 December, the Beirut daily Al-Balad ran a story saying that a `hit-list` was out in Lebanon, and future targets would include Jumblatt, and several of his allies including Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, and Wael Abu Faour. Also on 15 December, the UN passed Resolution 1644, extending the investigations in the Al-Hariri affair for another six months, which end on 15 June, 2006. The resolution also calls for creating a court with an international character to trial the murderers of Al-Hariri and expand the work of the UN Commission to include all the consecutive murders and attempted murders that rocked Lebanon over the past 12 months.
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