The year of living precariously
Unprecedented events led to unprecedented pressures on Syria, notes Sami Moubayed
There was a general mood in Damascus the day the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003 that the years to come were not going to be good for Syria. That day, a chorus of US officials began a vendetta campaign against Syria, accusing it of having supported Saddam in combat, of harbouring the Iraqi dictator, and of helping insurgents cross the border through Syria to fight the Anglo- American armies. President George W Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell levelled these accusations. Diplomatic arm- twisting took a new turn in December 2003, when the US passed the Syria Accountability Act, and in 2004 when the US and France collaborated for UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. Matters climaxed on 14 February 2005, when Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri was murdered in a massive car bomb in Beirut, along with his bodyguards and ex-economy and trade minister Bassel Fuleihan.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets accusing Damascus of having ordered Al-Hariri's killing. The US adjudged Syria guilty and applied international pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, which happened in April 2005. Then came another UN resolution: 1595, which created a UN commission to investigate the Al-Hariri assassination. Resolution 1636 was added in November 2005, calling on Syria to cooperate with UN judge Detlev Mehlis. A third -- Resolution 1644 -- issued in December 2005, extended the UN investigating commission's mandate for another six months.
Al-Hariri was a popular man in Syria. Due to connections and wealth, he was always a favourite of Syrian politicians since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990. The Syrian street respected him for the reconstruction of Beirut and for the favours he had done Syria since coming to power in 1992. If the Syrians are innocent of Al-Hariri's blood, they are guilty of having abandoned such an able and cunning ally in favour of stooge-like President Emile Lahoud since 1998. It was wrong to bring Lahoud to power then and catastrophic to extend his mandate as president, despite the wishes of the Lebanese, in 2004. The Syrians miscalculated, thinking that Lahoud would serve their interests and knowing that he would remain loyal to Syria amid a rising anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon.
Hariri unwillingly approved the extension of Lahoud's presidency in 2004, under pressure from Damascus, and then resigned from the premiership, working from within the opposition to bring down the cabinet of his successor, Omar Karameh. Since then, a Pandora's box has opened in Lebanon, starting with Al-Hariri's murder in February, and ending with Gibran Tueni's in December 2005. For 12 months Syria has been pleading innocent.
The Mehlis Commission came to Lebanon in the summer of 2005 to investigate Al-Hariri's death. It interrogated several ranking anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, including Al-Hariri's son Saad and Walid Jumblatt. All of them attested that on 26 August 2004, Al-Hariri had a stormy meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. They claimed that Al-Hariri said that Al-Assad had threatened him and Jumblatt, saying if Lahoud's mandate were not extended, he would destroy Lebanon over their heads. No evidence, apart from the testimony of these anti-Syrian figures, was found by Mehlis to substantiate this story. Syrians interviewed about this same meeting, including Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara and his deputy Walid Al-Moualim, gave a very different picture of the meeting, saying it was cordial. The truth, perhaps, is somewhere in between, though clearly Al-Assad did not say, "if you don't extend Lahoud's mandate, we will kill you."
Topping all this, Syria navigated troubled domestic waters in 2005. Economically, Syria promised change to its disgruntled citizens, but the passing of two UN resolutions against Syria and its increased isolation by the US only led to a weakening Syrian pound, reaching its lowest value in history on 4 December when it traded at 61 Syrian pounds to one dollar. Investment has also dropped heavily and the only noteworthy firm to announce its decision to invest in Syria was the Dubai-based Emaar construction company.
Political changes were also anticipated in 2005, but Syria's troubled regional and international standing stalled progress, despite the high-profile Baath Party congress held 6-9 June 2005 promising a law granting political pluralism and ending the Baath Party's monopoly on Syrian life, which has existed since March 1963. Syrians expected a lot from the Baath Party conference, and many even believed that Law 49, which says that membership of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is an offence punishable by death, would be abolished. Others speculated that Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which says that the Baath is the leader of state and society, would be dropped.
None of the above happened, but the Congress did see the retirement of several veteran Baathists who had created the current regime with former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad in 1970. Among them was his long- serving Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, his two vice- presidents, Zuhayr Masharka and Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, the assistant secretary-general of the Baath Party, Abdullah Al-Ahmar, along with relative newcomers like former speaker of parliament Abdul-Qadir Qaddura and former prime minister Mohamed Mustafa Miro. Khaddam has since left for France, where rumours in Syria say that he has joined the Syrian opposition along with ex-chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi, both of whom are close to Walid Jumblatt and the Al-Hariri family. These remain unconfirmed rumours.
The Congress, in addition to witnessing the retirement of these individuals, saw a series of newcomers enter into the Baath central committee, all supported by President Al-Assad. Currently, Syrians are awaiting a cabinet change to replace the administration of Prime Minister Mohamed Naji Al-Otari, in power since 2004. One of the main portfolios to be filled is that of the minister of interior, which has been vacant since General Ghazi Kenaan, one of Syria's veteran intelligence barons, committed suicide on 12 October 2005. Strongman in Lebanon for over 20 years, Kenaan was brought back to Syria to become director of political security in 2002 before becoming interior minister in 2003, charged with clamping down on Islamists after a terrorist attack targeted the residential Mezzeh neighbourhood in April 2004. He was close to Al-Hariri and his name was mentioned several times in connection with the assassination. Kenaan denied the allegations, claiming that he and Al-Hariri had worked together in harmony since 1992. The reasons for his sudden suicide, following his interrogation by Mehlis, remain unknown.
For now, Syria looks back and bids farewell to a very troubled year -- its worse, perhaps, since 1982. The only thing that pleases the Syrians is the departure of Mehlis, a man who dominated the Syrian scene in 2005 and who stepped down and will be replaced by a new UN judge. The Syrians are waiting to see how the new prosecutor will handle the affair that looks set to dominate Syrian politics for the first six months of 2006.
Like Alice, Mehlis had entered Wonderland, where nothing is as it seems. If he listened to the Syrians, he would conclude that the Lebanese are guilty of manipulating the UN investigation. If he listened to the Lebanese, he would think the Syrians killed Al-Hariri. Like Alice, Mehlis was dragged down a deep rabbit-hole, dropping into the world of the absurd. Mehlis met witnesses who turned out to be double agents, officers who turned out to be suspects, and politicians who turned out to be liars.
No wonder he would want to leave an investigation where a friendly smile might mask hatred, and where a handshake might hide a dagger.