Monday, September 05, 2005

Mahlis Coming to Damascus: Is a Deal in the Works?

Mehlis Sets Sept. 10 for his Syria Foray
German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who heads the U.N. investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination, has said he would go to Damascus Sept. 10 to interview five Syrian officials as witnesses in connection with the case.

Mehlis plans to interview Syria's Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, former military intelligence chief in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh and his two top security aides in Beirut Mohammed Khallouf and Jameh Jameh. The fifth official hasn't been officially named.

Walid Jumblat, the Druze leader, has concluded that "a showdown to dethrone Lahoud is still premature," according to an article by an-Naharnet today. Only yesterday, many journalists had been speculating that the Lebanese parliament and cabinet members would boycott Lahoud and isolate him in Baabda Palace, as a precursor to throwing him out of office.

Walid Jumblat has suddenly applied the brakes, sending a drive to 'isolate then evict' President Lahoud from the Baabda palace screeching to a halt.

"The President of the Republic has not been accused, yet. So the President of the Republic exists," Jumblat said after an evening meeting with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at his south Beirut command headquarters Sunday.

Jumblat's change of heart came hardly 24 hours after he had ruled that the formal charge of Lahoud's 4 major security generals with complicity in ex-Premier Hariri's assassination "spelled out the end of the president's extended term."

"There seems to be a political balance that dictates a brake on the fast-moving drift toward a power crisis," An Nahar said Monday in an apparent attempt to explain Jumblat's sudden switch.

Both the Shiite factions, Hizbullah and Amal, control 28 votes in the legislature, which is made up of 128 seats. Gen. Aoun controls a 21-strong bloc. With 49 deputies against an impeachment move, there is no two-thirds majority in parliament. Between them, they can stand against a termination of Lahoud's term before the outcome of the Hariri investigation is finalized.

Meanwhile, the four detained generals of President Lahoud's police regime have been formally charged with 'terrorism' and 'willful murder' that may lead them to death before firing squads if convicted of ex-Premier Hariri's assassination.

But perhaps the Lebanese system is so broken that they will not be accused. Leila Hatoum, writing in the Daily Star, explains that:
It is understood the accused will be tried under Lebanese law, meaning the case will be heard by a panel of judges rather than a jury. It would also mean that in the event of a guilty verdict President Emile Lahoud, who has publicly defended one of the suspects, Hamdan, would have to sign the death warrants, along with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Justice Minister Charles Rizk.
Because the Lebanese government and courts are divided and incapable of leading a fair trial, Hatoum further explains, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora favours the establishment of a special international tribunal to try the accused, even though it is not clear how the case could be tried in this way. The UN's interim report into Hariri's murder stated that few people in Lebanon had faith in the country's judicial system because of its lack of independence from the government.

All of this confusion has lead some to fear that the investigation will stall at Syria's doorstep. Worried that Syria may get off the hook yet, they are claiming that a deal is being hatched between the Americans and Asad to limit the results of the investigation. Their arguments are based on pure speculation, because both American and French officials have been adamant that the investigation must be pursued to its limits.

In this regard, Aaron Klein, a Jerusalem reporter for writes that "Senior Lebanese leaders claim 'back-door deal' may preserve Assad regime." He writes:
Several Lebanese leaders tell WND they have been made aware of a back-door deal that might result in the probe stopping short of blaming Assad and other key Syrian leaders.

"Assad is pleading for his life and offering things the U.S. and the U.N. are interested in," a senior Lebanese politician told WND on condition of anonymity. "Syria is offering to drop Lahoud and to stop interfering in Lebanese politics in exchange for letting them off for Hariri."

The senior politician pointed to what he called "troubling signs" Detlev Mehlis, head of UN international probe, is reluctant to blame Damascus.

The politician said he was "taken aback" when Mehlis last week released former Parliamentary Member Nasser Qandil, claiming Qandil was no longer a suspect. Qandil was strongly associated with Syria, and was many times referred to in the Lebanese media as "Damascus' Spokesman."

"We are aware of a lot of information that may link Qandil [to the assassination]. It doesn't make sense he was released so quickly," the senior politician told WND.

Also, several opposition leaders said they were upset Mehlis has been referring publicly to the four arrested generals and others questioned in the probe as Syrian "witnesses" and not Syrian "suspects."

And some opposition leaders have previously stated Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, may have been involved in the assassination. Rumors have persisted the booby-trapped truck that killed Hariri was prepared in one of the southern towns controlled by Hezbollah.

But none of the four arrested suspects has direct affiliations with Hizbullah, and Mehlis announced last week "there is no indication that Hizbullah has any part in the crime whatsoever."

Another Lebanese politician, speaking from a cell phone in Paris, told WND, "Of course I am aware of deals to ensure Assad is not blamed." This politician too spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he "fears for his life."

"Assad is coming to New York soon. He wouldn't step one foot on U.S. soil unless he already made a deal, or he knows he's coming to make one," said the politician.

Assad is scheduled to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York Sept. 14-16. U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N. Anne Peterson said American officials have no intention of meeting Assad during his trip.

Dr. Walid Phares, president of the Council on Foreign Affairs of the World Lebanese Cultural Union, told WND: "My guess is that the Syrians are sending messages about their readiness to cut a deal with the US. ... The ones who want the deal are the Syrians and some of their Arab allies. They want them to drop Lahoud, and back off Hezbollah."

"Bashar Assad has a very tough choice today," continued Phares. "Either he will let go of his allies and gain some more time for this regime, or draw a line in the sand and fight in Lebanon with Hizbollah and Lahoud."

Lahoud has come under repeated fire since the Hariri murder, with politicians as recently as yesterday calling for his resignation. Last week, the Lebanese cabinet canceled a meeting because it was to be presided over by Lahoud.
There can be little doubt that Syria would like to make a deal that would stop the investigation at Syria's doorstep. One could even argue that this would be good for Lebanon in the long run if it would guarantee a halt to Syrian meddling in Lebanon and preserve the country from a long and protracted struggle with their larger neighbor that Lebanon could hardly hope to win.

After all, Syria's influence in Lebanon is not primarily a result of its allies among Lebanon's secret service, but within parliament and large sections of the Lebanese population.

At any rate, it is too early for speculation of this type. No matter how much some people may want a deal to limit the extent of the probe, it would be very hard to control the outcome the investigation, the trials, the testimony of the detained, and the many other unknowns.

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