Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 October 2005
Issue No. 765
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Save the best for last

The Lebanese government asks the UN to withhold its report on Al-Hariri's assassination for another two months, Serene Assir writes

Just one day after Syrian Interior Minister and former intelligence chief in Lebanon Ghazi Kanaan was found dead in Damascus, the Lebanese government, headed by Fouad Al-Siniora, reiterated its request that the United Nations postpone the release of its inquest into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri until 15 December.

The UN-led enquiry, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, was due to release its report on 21 October. The Lebanese government claims that it requires the extra time in order to give the judiciary an opportunity to complete its own independent investigation into the assassination.

Earlier this month, Beirut had made this request for the first time. The UN has so far failed to respond, and the set deadline is now rapidly approaching. Nevertheless, according to anti-Syrian Lebanese daily An-Nahar, the United States may well intervene and press the UN to push the deadline forward.

So far, the direction of the UN-headed investigation has been decidedly with Damascus in view. Four top Syrian officials who formerly served in Lebanon are currently in detention, waiting to be charged in relation to the assassination of Al-Hariri. Kanaan himself was among the officials that Mehlis's team gained access to and interviewed as so- called witnesses.

The German prosecutor spent several days working in Syria, after Damascus came under increasing pressure from the US after the international community claimed that President Bashar Al-Assad was creating obstacles to the investigating team's work.

Much can be safely assumed about the report even prior to its release. On the one hand, as was confirmed by a CNN interview with Al-Assad conducted just two hours before Kanaan was found dead, the Syrian leadership has decided that it will take the safer, more diplomatic path and acquiesce to US and UN pressure, and deal severely with Syrians who are accused by the Mehlis report of conspiring to kill Al-Hariri.

On the other hand, given the mere fact that so much of Mehlis's work was focussed on Syria, it is clear that influential Syrians will at least figure among those found guilty by the UN inquest of assassinating the former Lebanese premier.

One must question the Lebanese government -- which is decidedly the child of the post-Hariri assassination era and is composed of a majority of anti- Syrian politicians -- on its precise rationale for seeking that the UN report be withheld for a full eight weeks, particularly when the sizeable pro-Hariri proportion of Lebanese society has been eagerly anticipating the report's findings.

Such is the gap in the official argument of the Lebanese government -- namely that its judiciary needs more time in order to be able to carry out its own inquest -- that it leads to highly justified speculation.

One possibility is that the Lebanese government is, at this crucial point, buying time. For the only policy that actually holds the coalition, formed after the May elections, together is its condemnation of Syrian direct intervention in Lebanese politics. And it was mainly this policy that brought the coalition to power in the first place.

In other words, rather than actually wanting the report to come out, the rather shaky government -- which remains to this day cursed with in-fighting on domestic politics -- may now have found itself in the position whereby its survival and legitimacy ultimately depends on this very anticipation.

Such a possibility becomes particularly plausible if we bear in mind the way in which the government was formed in the shadow of the assassinated Lebanese leader and on the exit of Syrian troops following a 29-year-long occupation which involved continual and direct intervention into matters political and economic.

It also gains ground if we note that the UN report's findings may ultimately prove unsatisfactory to Lebanese public opinion, which is for the most part eager to find a suitable scapegoat for the crime.

What is also particularly interesting is the way in which the Americans are beginning to intervene too, and the timing they chose to do so. There is very little room to question at this point that whatever action the new Lebanese government claims to take independently -- particularly vis-à-vis its relations with Syria -- is actually taken following at least some liaising with Washington. In other words, it is no coincidence that the US is backing the Lebanese call for the deadline of the UN report to be extended.

The American rationale may be somewhat easier to figure out than the Lebanese. For the US and Syria have, for the past fortnight, been unashamedly involved in a courting process, which at least Al-Assad seems to be hoping will lead to some kind of rapprochement. It would not be in Washington's interest if a report which could potentially incriminate middle to top level officials in Syria at such a time.

While Washington has recently kept relatively quiet about Syria with regards to the Mehlis investigation -- in contrast to the complaints it was making while the investigation was in its beginning stages -- Damascus has obviously been keen to please the world's only superpower.

Suffice to say that Al-Assad granted CNN an exclusive in English last week, promising that he will be severe with anyone proven to have plotted to kill Al-Hariri. Prior to that, he had made various statements guaranteeing that he would not place any obstacles in the investigators' paths.

However, while the Lebanese and American governments may both appear to have reasons to keep the UN quiet, it may just backfire on Beirut -- the momentum may escalate to the point of leaving the government with no apparent legitimacy upon which to base itself. But then again, if the request is passed by the UN, the next two months may in themselves be filled with the events which will determine the true shape of Lebanese politics to come. And that may just be precisely what Beirut wants: time to think and to realign itself, internally, vis-à-vis Syria, and vis-à-vis America.

Now doesn't that triangle sound familiar in Beirut?

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