Detlev Mehlis' initial report on the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri raises new political scenarios in the Middle East. Al-Ahram Weekly provides special in-depth coverage and expert analysis on the various political and legal issues stemming from the investigation's findings
Out of our hands
Writing from Damascus, Sami Moubayed reports on Syria's condemnation of the Mehlis report
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Tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrated on Monday in Damascus to protest against the Mehlis report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. The demonstration, organised in a show of support for Bashar Al-Assad's regime, came a day before the UN Security Council debated the report
The Mehlis Investigation
Thousands of Syrians demonstrated in Damascus and Aleppo on Monday against the release and contents of Detlev Mehlis's report on the United Nations investigations into the assassination of Lebanese former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri. The demonstrators carried various signs and called out different slogans, condemning the report as being authored in the United States and claiming that it was unprofessional.
But, in fact, most demonstrators did not know why they were protesting and had never read the report. They just knew that it targeted their country and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Indeed, it was a holiday from school for children and from work for government employees. Older -- and perhaps wiser -- citizens sat troubled in their offices and homes.
This was, by no standards, a good week for Damascus. While the Syrians criticised the Mehlis report, the world praised it as professional. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added to the pressure, saying that now the Syrians had to be held accountable.
The world is now watching Syria. Can it respond affirmatively and conduct a rapprochement with the international community? To many observers, this report was the final warning. It was not merely an accusation against Syria. It was an ultimatum to the Syrians.
The report included the names of high- ranking Syrian officials accused of conspiring to kill Al-Hariri. The list of Syrian and Lebanese names included Maher Al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president, Asef Shaukat, his brother-in-law, Hassan Khalil, the former director of Syrian Intelligence, and Bahjat Suleiman, the former director of internal security.
Mehlis had no evidence whatsoever to incriminate any of these men, except the unconfirmed testimony of a Syrian agent who claimed to have worked at the Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon. The Syrians insist that these men are innocent and that their names were mentioned without any evidence against them only to tarnish their reputations and that of Syria.
It has now been proven that the man who incriminated them is an imposter and a liar. These names were intentionally leaked to the press, through CNN, then deleted in the final text of the report that was made public. The US was making a point of its own through Mehlis. If Syria cooperates on all issues, including Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, the first version of the report -- which includes the Syrian officials' names -- will be forgotten.
Now Syria has until mid-December to prove its willingness to cooperate with the Americans. If it fails, a more aggressive report will be issued against Damascus by the end of this year. For its part, Syria has understood the message. It has agreed to let Mehlis interview Syrian officials as witnesses outside Syria and pledged many times, most recently through Al-Assad on CNN, that any Syrian involved in the crime would be charged for treason.
Everyone in Syria believes that the Mehlis report is a political document used to incriminate and weaken Damascus. It is based on poor evidence, unconfirmed testimonies from Syrian witnesses, and declarations from anti-Syrian figures in Lebanon. It has no pictures to support its alleged findings, no recordings incriminating Syrian officials, and no direct, truly incriminating evidence.
Rather, it sends mixed signals to the Syrians. Neither does it explicitly say that Syrian officials were involved in the assassination, nor does it say that they are innocent. It creates many theories about Syrian involvement but does not confirm a single one. The report reads: "There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organised without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services." It does not directly accuse the Syrians, therefore.
Legally there is an important difference between claiming that the assassination could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the aforementioned security forces and claiming that they were actually responsible.
The report also raises many eyebrows because it does not mention the names of the Syrian "witnesses" except for Mohamed Zuhayr Al-Saddiq, which was leaked to the press during investigations. This greatly troubles Syrians. By not mentioning names the report leaves very little room for Syria to manoeuvre. How can Syria question or interrogate unidentified Syrians? One witness -- quoted in the report -- said a senior Syrian official told him one month before Al-Hariri's murder that "an earthquake" was about to happen in Lebanon and it would re-write Lebanese history.
Syria has objected that it cannot assume such a statement is true because it does not know who the Syrian officer is, nor does it know the name of the witness, nor does it know the exact text of the conversation. More importantly, it cannot confirm this claim with any other testimony. And Syria does not believe the testimony of most of the witnesses.
Media sources in Syria have said that one of the two Syrian witnesses mentioned frequently in the report is an agent of Rifaat Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad's uncle, who was banished in 1982 for trying to seize power. Since Syria came under fire from the US, Rifaat has actively been seeking a comeback.
Syrians also claim that the other witness, Al-Saddiq, is an imposter with a criminal record in Syria. He claimed to be a senior Syrian officer while in reality he was nothing but a foot soldier and a traitor. He claims to have privy information about the assassination, arguing that he was one of the conspirators under orders from his masters in the Syrian Intelligence. The Syrians believe that he is a liar.
But apparently, Mehlis believes him, reminding us of how former Iraqi officials who had fled to the US in the 1990s came out to "confirm" that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) before the US-led coalition launched its invasion in 2003. They just wanted to incriminate Saddam and were lying through their teeth.
The Syrian witness claims, according to section 96 of the report, that the decision to kill Al-Hariri was taken in Damascus in July 2004. The Syrian government is saying that, had such information been backed with evidence, such as recorded talks, pictures, and the testimony of more than one witness, then one could not but believe it. But the only basis for such an accusation is the testimony of the Syrian witness.
Another witness claims to have met Mustafa Hamdan, head of the Lebanese Republican Guard, who is close to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and the Syrians. This witness claims that Hamdan said they were fed up with Al-Hariri and wanted "to send him on a trip". Anybody with the slightest intelligence would have realised that he would be held accountable for his words once the target was hit. Assassins don't usually want to be caught. They don't leave behind obvious traces. They wear gloves when pulling the trigger. They operate in complete secrecy. They don't go around telling everybody they know that they are about to commit murder.
In conclusion, the report does not incriminate Syria. It says it is probable that the murder could not have been done without an approval or involvement from Damascus. Yet now that the investigations have been postponed until December, it leaves room to say (if Syria cooperates) that after further investigation, it has been proven that Al-Hariri was killed by Lebanese officers, with no direct involvement from Syria.
Chances are, it will not say that Syria was innocent. Rather, the best case scenario would be for Mehlis to say that Syria shoulders responsibility because it was in charge of security in Lebanon, or that Syria knew about the plot and turned a blind eye. There is no use for the Syrians to insist that they are innocent because, guilty or not, the report will find a way to incriminate them.
The question is: what is the level of incrimination? If the Syrians cooperate, the report will blame Syria as a whole for leading, one way or another, to the death of Al-Hariri. At first glance this may seem as an embarrassment but in reality it is much less of an embarrassment than the report saying that Syrian officials, by name, are responsible for the murder of Al-Hariri. The regime as a whole will be targeted, with isolation and sanctions, but this will leave room for a future rapprochement similar to the case in Libya, when Muammar Qaddafi decided to cooperate with America, and end his country's isolation despite the fact that he had been responsible with Lockerbie.
The fact that Syria is not Libya, Al-Assad is not Qaddafi, and Syria is innocent unlike Qaddafi who was guilty of Lockerbie, is actually irrelevant to the Americans at this stage.