Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Why Washington will NOT make a deal over Mehlis Report

Here is what one friend wrote to me based on Michael Young's recent commentary in the Daily Star here.

There have been suggestions in recent press analyses that Assad is out to cut a deal, any deal, to salvage his regime. In exchange for being declared innocent of the Hariri hit by Mehlis, the Syrians are said to be willing to do whatever the United States wants them to - in Iraq, Lebanon, on the Palestinian front, and on the Golan Heights. The buzz is that Assad's visit to New York for the annual General Assembly session is designed to reach such an arrangement with the Bush administration.
Many Lebanese are very excited about the prospect of nailing Syria for Hariri's murder by the use of international courts, the Mehlis report, and perhaps another UN resolution, which would sanction Syria further. Many have talked themselves into the notion that the Syrian regime is weak because of its withdrawal from Lebanon and America's presence in Iraq and can be toppled by further international pressure. I think this is wrong.

I cannot believe that Bashar is going to the US for a deal. He is going to New York and the UN because Washington will not talk to him and refuses to make a deal. That is my hunch. He is trying to break out of his isolation. If he had a deal, he would not have to go. With so many expectations now stirred up over the Mehlis report, it is probably too late for a deal. Chirac is on record saying that no deal will be made and the full truth needs to come out. The Washington hawks are more likely to be waiting for his arrival in New York with glee, so they can rip his eyes out. They will paint him as a murderer and not a reformer. If the Mehlis report turns out to be damning for Bashar, he may well cancel his visit to the UN and New York. Some in Washington are already guessing he will cancel.

Here is an earlier article by Michael Young, "What If Syria Is Guilty? ," (copied in full blow) in which he prays that Hizbullah is not connect to the Hariri's murder, but that Syria is and will be taken down. Young has long argued that true democracy will only be realizable in Lebanon, when Syria becomes democratic. Michael argues that Lebanon will always be a dependent state so long as the region is dominated by Arabism and authoritarianism. This belief is one reason why many in Lebanon argue it is so important to marshal the West to deal a lethal blow to the Syrian Baathist state.

Here is a letter that I wrote a friend in the States yesterday trying to explain why I think Lebanon will be doing itself a disservice by getting on board a US and UN frontal attack on Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian regime.

The big question here is the Mehlis report, which is likely to destroy his plans. Now that it is due to be published (mid-September is the new date) at the time of Bashar's arrival, he may decide to back out, but I haven't heard anything about that.

The arrests of the top Syrian intelligence guys in Beirut by Mehlis have got everyone buzzing. The Lebanese are frothing at the mouth to get Syria. I don't see how they can. If I were they, I would concentrate on hitting the people I could kill off - the Lebanese security apparatus that is compromised and perhaps even Lahoud. They could then carry out the last steps of the Cedar revolution that Syria frustrated. I would give Syria a pass with a wink and a nod, leaving that battle for another day, because it is a loser for Lebanon.

Lebanon is externalizing its problems again. It will play the poor victim when all of this turns sour on them and they get stuck in the middle of an American-Syrian battle. Their government will be torn apart over it and will miss the window of good will they have from the West to get something constructive done - get debt re-scheduled, push through economic reforms and begin to confront massive corruption and payola which has driven their debt to the moon. Once Lebanon has been used to squeeze Syria and has failed to build an effective central government it will be forgotten by the West because it will be useless. "America will be stuck with Lebanon and Iraq - and where will that get them?" That is what one smart Syrian businessman remarked to me the other day. He is well plugged in, lives in France much of the year

Syria cannot take revenge on America, but it can kick Lebanon, which it will do with glee. The national sentiment here is high when it comes to anti-Lebanonism and the regime has been playing it. The border closings were very popular. We will likely see more of them if the Mehlis report is bad. This is just what Syria asked Lebanon not to do - to be used as a US aircraft carrier to attack Syria. Lebanon will get lost in this battle. I understand the Lebanese desire for justice and to get back at the Syrians for their misdeeds, but I can't believe this is what Hariri would do, or want, if he were alive. He was Mr. Lebanon and would have thought about what he could accomplish for Lebanon.

It is brave of Asad to go to New York - maybe foolish now. He needs to do something because he has been really frozen out - even by the Europeans. Chirac is playing ball with Washington and Bashar is in deep isolation. He cannot get invited anywhere and no one will come see him. Several people I spoken with recently, complained about this, but get their back up when asked why they don't cooperate more. They think they are cooperating. They insist that Syria will do reform on its own. Import from the East, etc., scrape by.

If the headlines in all the US papers and TV chat will be that Bashar is a murderer and not "a reformer," as he hopes he can spin them, than his trip will be a humiliation.

Syria is now in a state of confusion. Many people are wondering if Bashar will announce a new government before he goes to New York. It is coming soon, whichever. In the meantime, no one knows where Syria is headed. Most of the people he is rumored to appoint are good. There will be more technocrats. The big questions are over who will be prime minister and how much power Dardari - the new deputy prime minister - will have. Dardari is the big hope now. He has many new plans in the works for investment laws, etc. But he doesn't have the power to make them work. They need to fire lots of people deep-down into the various ministries and hire new people, but they can't. The top pay allowed in the ministries is $300 dollars according to state law. No one good comes for that. It only breeds corruption. Most of the good people are hired as consultants through the UN. That is the only way around the salary cap here, and it is what Dardari is doing. But there is a limit to how many people he can bring on board that way. It is a mess.

But Syria will stumble through. There are many good people here and they are trying to make a go of it. They bitch and moan about government incompetence, but they are also optimistic. Perhaps they are crazy. I spoke to a young and smart guy from the Aleppine elite this morning. He came over wanting to chat Aleppo - during his Damascus visit. He said the young elite of Aleppo were making money and optimistic about the future. He also said they like Bashar. They don't like the amount of lying and cheating they must do to make things happen in their businesses, but they are making money and still take Bashar at his word. they think he is trying and headed in the right direction.

It is the poor that are getting whacked here. New liberalization laws mean the rich are making out well and getting many new opportunities - as in Sadat's Egypt, but the little guy gets nothing. They are un-educated and useless. The small salaries are buying less. Bashar will keep the lid on it for the next several years successfully though. That is my hunch - even if America throws its worst at him. The Iraq mess plays to his strengths - Arabism, go slow, be careful, America wants to harm you, sacrifice, trust me for I am your only protection from civil war and rampant sectarian chaos and Islamism. He has won the local propaganda war by being the anti-Bush and for having opposed Iraq from the beginning. Syrians even like his willingness to bend and wiggle when pressured by the States. All the same they are very confused and worried about the future. Many people miss Hafiz al-Asad for his decisiveness and control. The more unstable the environment around Syria becomes, the more they have nostalgia for big daddy. Older people especially worry that Bashar doesn't have the courage or guile to make the hard decisions.

Anyway, that is the word from Sham.
Meanwhile, Michael Doran of the National Security Council (He recently replaced Eliot Abrams), met with Farid Ghadry yesterday. Ghadry is preparing a "government in exile." Here is his news release. This suggests that Washington is not interested in a deal with Syria. The line that many are taking in Washington is that Bashar is Arafat. He is too weak and indecisive to deliver anything, so Washington should not make a deal with him. They should try to replace him.

RPS Meets with the National Security Council
Washington DC, August 31, 2005/RPS/ -- Farid Ghadry, President of the Reform Party of Syria, met with the Director of Policy Mr. Michael Doran at NSC yesterday. The meeting took place about two weeks before Baschar al-Assad arrives New York for the UN World Summit and the day most of the pro-Syrian Lebanese ex-intelligence officers were detained for questioning in Lebanon.

The discussions centered around the Human Rights situation in Syria and specifically the release of Riad Seif from prison as well as all the other prisoners of conscience languishing in Syrian jails under abhorring and inhumane conditions. It also discussed the importance of pressuring the Assad regime to allow the Atassi Forum, a pro-democracy group, to conduct business free from intimidation and harassment.

RPS also discussed the anticipated Syrian National Conference to take place soon in Europe that would unite all the opposition political parties and figures. The Syrian Democratic Coalition, made of nine political parties and organizations, also intend to develop a Transitional Parliament (in exile) that would be instrumental in transitioning Syria peacefully from a dictatorship to a democracy after the fall of the regime. Syrians will rely on this body to help move away from a Bremer-type situation as well to conduct business in accordance with Syrian customs. The purpose is to cushion for the fall of Assad by uniting all the influential organizations be it political. economic, or social to avoid the mistakes taking place in Iraq today.

Additionally, RPS is working on a 200-page project to be provided to the Europeans and the American administration on the "After Assad" era that would encompass support for a peaceful transition. Syria is a special country with its culture and customs. Any effort not to take into account that culture will be met with failure if planning is not done today.
Reuters reports (Washington DC, August 30, 2005) that
The Lebanese police arrested three former top pro-Syrian security officials and a pro-Syrian former member of parliament on Tuesday, a security source said.

The source said Jamil al-Sayyed, former chief of the General Security Directorate, Ali Hajj, ex-head of police, and Raymond Azar, ex-head of military intelligence, were arrested in raids at their homes at dawn by police.

It was not immediately clear why the arrests were made but the three men had been blamed by some Lebanese politicians of having a role in the February 14 killing of ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Former MP Nassir Qandil was also arrested, the source said.
President Chirac insists on full implementation of UN resolutions
“French President Jacques Chirac confirmed that the UN resolutions regarding Lebanon must be fully implemented. He called upon Syria to take the opportunity to rebuild good relations with Lebanon, and to start a development process the whole world is waiting for,” An Nahar, a Lebanese opposition newspaper, reported on August 30. Chirac spoke during a conference for French ambassadors in which he did not mention the international investigation of Hariri’s assassination when talking about Lebanon. “Chirac said that the mobilization of people (in Lebanon) with international support was able to overcome a long Syrian military presence. The Lebanese people finally were able to express themselves freely. Chirac added that UN resolutions 1559,1595, and 1614 should be fully implemented,” An Nahar reported.

On the other hand, President Chirac talked about the importance of solving the Middle East conflict, because it is a destabilizing factor for the whole region. He encouraged both the Israelis and Palestinians to continue the efforts to implement the ‘Road Map’ plan. Chirac added that the international community will continue supporting reforms in the Middle East. - An Nahar, Lebanon
"Mehlis informed Lebanese officials of political assassination list"
Al Seyassah, an independent Kuwaiti newspaper, reported on August 30 that: “The journalist and Lebanese member of Parliament Gibran Tueini revealed yesterday that the International Investigation Committee [investigating the assassination of previous Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] informed the Lebanese security forces of a list of Lebanese who are in danger of getting killed.”

Tueini said in an interview with Al-Sharq radio station: “There is a direct threat to some Lebanese politicians, and I am one of them.” He confirmed that he had personally received a report from Lebanese security officials, showing that the International Investigation Committee had given them information stressing that there is a list of politicians who may be assassinated. Tueni’s name is on that list. Tueni’s statement came after Chouf MP Walid Jumblatt and the previous Secretary-General to the Lebanese Communist Party George Hawi - who was assassinated on June 21 - had both spoken of such a "black list." - Al Seyassah, Kuwait
Jumblatt joins Hariri and Geagea in Paris, fearing assassination
Al Quds Al Arabi, a Palestinian-owned independent, pan-Arab newspaper, reported on August 30 that: “The Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, made remarks yesterday which reflect the danger of the upcoming stage, during which the final report of the international investigation of the martyr Rafik Hariri’s death will be announced.” Sfeir said that Lebanon has always lived in danger, and that the danger increases or decreases, but this time the danger is big.

The danger Sfeir is talking about is not too far from him, because his name is on a list of figures in Lebanon who have been threatened with assassination. Many of those endangered have fled Lebanon to ensure their safety. One of those endangered is MP Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, who has been in Paris for over a month. He was joined by the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who traveled to Paris yesterday on a private jet. He left after having been stranded in his home for over a month and a half. Jumblatt did not deny that he was threatened with assassination but said that it is about fate; the fates starting with Kamal Jumblat (his father and a notable political figure) through to Renee Mouawad (President), and Rafik Hariri and Hassan Khaled (highest Sunni figure).

Syria has been accused by some of assassinating all these figures. On the other hand, the leader of the Lebanese Forces militia Samir Geagea, who was just released after spending 11 years in jail, is also in Paris, under the excuse of having medical examinations and therapy. His stay was scheduled for only one month, but sources said that he will return end of September when the results of the investigation are publicized.

Also on the list of those who are threatened is Nabih Berri, the Lebanese House Speaker, who has only attended three parliamentary sessions this year since his re-election. He has also taken to staying inside his house. In addition to that, journalists are also under threat, such as Gibran Tueni, the chief editor of An Nahar daily newspaper, whose reporter Samir Kassir was a victim of a car bomb attack which led to his death. - Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom
Bilal El-Amine of MWU has a good article on how Syria struck back after UN resolution 1559 to reestablish its influence in Lebanon. He also gives a good overview of Aoun's role and how it is likely to evolve.

Here is Michael Young's full article.

What If Syria Is Guilty?
By Michael Young Published 08/30/2005

BEIRUT -- Late last week, Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on behalf of the UN Security Council, released a preliminary report on his inquiry, scheduled to be completed by mid-September. The Western media have given relatively little attention to the investigation; however, if Syria is found guilty, as many observers are beginning to foresee, this could lead to the destabilization of Syria's regime, if not to its actual downfall.

The preliminary report did not address the substance of what Mehlis and his team had found, though it did offer details allowing for some educated guesses. For example, the prosecutor, while admitting that further interviews of witnesses might extend the three-month deadline of his report (renewable for one additional three-month period), nevertheless mentioned that he expected his work to be completed on time. This may indicate, as sources close to the Hariri camp have maintained, that Mehlis has already completed the bulk of his inquiry, implying he has found a guilty party or parties. Nor have there been signs of faltering, since Mehlis underlined that the second month of the investigation had been a good one, with the team receiving particularly useful information.

Mehlis also highlighted the fact that Syria had refused to cooperate with the investigative team, which had asked to speak to five Syrians - four intelligence officials who had held posts in Lebanon, and, the London-based daily Al-Hayat alleged last week, President Bashar Assad himself. Initially, the Syrians, citing constitutional clauses, had refused to allow oral interrogations, and asked Mehlis to submit his questions via the Syrian Foreign Ministry, so they could be answered in writing. When the UN rejected this, and after warnings were directed at Syria last week, even from friendly countries such as Russia, Assad backtracked, telling the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, in an interview published on Monday, that he would allow Mehlis to speak to Syrian officials after all.

If Assad is the "fifth man", then this would be particularly revealing. A previous UN report on the assassination, authored by the Irish deputy police commissioner, Peter Fitzgerald, specifically mentioned that the Syrian president had threatened Hariri in a meeting they held last August, when Syria effectively bullied the prime minister into endorsing an unconstitutional extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate. By raising this incident with Assad (and it is difficult to see how it would not come up in an interview), Mehlis would show he is not to be intimidated by wherever his investigation might lead.

While one must await the final report, the latest rumors in Beirut suggest that senior Syrian officials, including members of the Assad family, will be implicated in Hariri's death. Maybe, maybe not; however the accusation has received an echo from reliable sources, as well as from press reports, noting that Assad all but admitted to Syrian involvement (while exonerating himself personally) in a meeting he held last March in Riyadh with then-Crown Prince Abdullah, now king of Saudi Arabia.

What many Lebanese fear is that Mehlis might also implicate Hizbullah. There is nothing implying the party played a role in the Hariri assassination (though press reports mentioned that the UN team had asked for detailed maps of areas around the Palestinian camps in Beirut's southern suburbs, where Hizbullah holds sway). Some analysts hint the finger pointing may be manipulation, perhaps by the fearful Lahoud camp, to derail full disclosure in the inquiry, since involvement of the Shiite Hizbullah in the death of a Sunni politician raises the prospect of communal conflict. But few are especially sanguine. Last March, a senior Lebanese politician told me, "I do not discount Hizbullah's involvement in the assassination," though he offered no evidence.

Yet another rumor difficult to corroborate, published without attribution in internet and press reports, is that a Syrian intelligence officer who sought political asylum in France has been providing detailed information on the assassination to French intelligence, including names. One Arabic internet site,, identified him as Maj. Zuheir S. (his full last name was unspecified). Reference in the article to the intelligence service to which he belonged was unclear, but he apparently headed the office of the former Military Intelligence chief, Gen. Hassan Khalil. Again, however, the story should be treated with caution until Mehlis publishes his findings.

Amid all the rumors, one conclusion seems increasingly likely: Lebanese officials will be blamed for at least trying to cover up the crime. In an interview with France's Le Figaro in July, Mehlis described the head of the Presidential Guard, Mustapha Hamdan, as "a suspect." Few believe that Hamdan - in reality Lahoud, his superior and patron - was responsible for ordering the assassination. However, there have been numerous indications that the presidential palace sought to cover up the blast site soon after Hariri's murder. The Fitzgerald report specifically mentioned that evidence had been tampered with, concluding: "[T]he manner in which this element of the investigation was carried out displays, at least gross negligence, possibly accompanied by criminal actions..."

According to UN Security Council Resolution 1595, which established the Mehlis commission, it is Lebanon's judiciary that must prosecute those deemed responsible. In his preliminary report, however, the German investigator wrote that many witnesses were afraid of having their testimony handed over to the Lebanese authorities. It is ever more obvious that Lebanon's courts, given the country's political divisions and weaknesses, do not have the means to bring anyone to justice; nor its security agencies the wherewithal to protect witnesses, particularly if Syrian involvement is confirmed. This has led to growing speculation, buttressed by statements from Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad al-Siniora, that a special international tribunal might become necessary to act against the guilty. This would deeply alarm the Syrian regime (again, if Mehlis does find a Syrian connection), as it means Syria would become even more of an international pariah than it already is. That Assad could politically survive such pressure is doubtful.

In the coming weeks, we will know whether the Mehlis inquiry produces the "earthquake" that many have predicted it will. For the moment, the Lebanese are holding their breath fearing the Syrian backlash, but also hoping that Hizbullah is innocent, so that Sunni-Shiite tension can be averted. Everyone is anxiously aware that the truth may be painful.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.

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