Across the Bay

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Mehlis Report

Reactions to the Mehlis Report (.doc) have naturally started to flood in. My two cents will soon follow. Before that, however, a couple of items by Michael Young.

First, a post at Hit and Run speculating about the interesting tracked changes involving the names of Maher Assad, Bahjat Suleiman, and Hasan Khalil (as well as Asef Shawkat, but his name is mentioned elsewhere in the report anyway, which is very significant).

Second, an op-ed in the WSJ, reproduced here for your convenience. More to come.

The Mehlis Report

By Michael Young
Oct 21, 2005
Wall Street Journal, pg. A.14

BEIRUT -- Yesterday, Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor tasked by the U.N. to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, handed his report over to Secretary General Kofi Annan. As Security Council members receive it, the report is already being widely distributed. In Beirut, Hariri's followers can stop counting the days between the killing and the time when the truth emerges. In contrast, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be facing a report that initiates the countdown to his own regime's demise.

The report cites "converging evidence" of both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in the murder, and states that Hariri's assassination was planned months in advance. It also states that it was "carried out by a group with an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities." The report finds that, "given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."

Both senior Syrian and Lebanese officials stand accused. For example, the report mentions that a witness implicated Mr. Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who heads Syria's military intelligence service. Syria's Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa was also explicitly mentioned for his attempts to mislead investigators. Another potentially devastating piece of information is that one of the suspects called Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a close Syrian ally, on his personal cell phone minutes after the blast. All this means that Mr. Assad is likely to face charges that, by action or omission, he was responsible for Hariri's death.

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As Mr. Mehlis must have known, the small details are essential for Mr. Assad's future. Mr. Shawkat, for example, is not only married to the president's sister, Bushra; he has accumulated much power in recent months and is an essential pillar -- among rapidly weakening pillars -- of Mr. Assad's power. If he were publicly accused, the allegation would create a dilemma for the president, one that could potentially lead to a rift in Syria's ruling family. Mr. Assad recently told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that "if indeed there is a Syrian national implicated . . . he would be considered as a traitor and most severely punished." However, he may have been thinking ahead when he added that if it was treason, "where the trial will take place [is] different," suggesting Syria may refuse to give suspects up to a non-Syrian court.

Mr. Assad could face other problems. Because the decision to assassinate Hariri was part of a complex plot developed at senior levels, the president will have to convince the international community that some knew, while others did not. For, as anyone with knowledge of Syria understands, the regime has long thrived on balancing its contending parts, so that any accusation against one senior figure implicitly suggests that others (for example Mr. Assad himself, or his brother Maher, who heads the Presidential Guard) would have been in the loop, since it is improbable that so daring a decision as the murder of a Lebanese prime minister could be taken by one person without the others knowing.

There had been speculation that the late interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, whom the Syrian authorities said committed suicide last week, would become the fall guy for the Hariri assassination. However, such a shifting of blame is no longer possible for the Syrian regime. Moreover, framing him (he was Mr. Ghazaleh's predecessor as intelligence chief in Lebanon) always meant ignoring two things: that he largely relinquished the Lebanese file in 2002 when he returned home; and that he enjoyed a lucrative relationship with Hariri. More convincing are claims that Kanaan, who was from the ruling Alawite community and had the temperament, money and networks to be an alternative to the Assads, was regarded as a coup threat. That is why many believe he was either made to commit suicide or eliminated.

While it is clearly climactic, the Mehlis report is only the start of a long process to bring the perpetrators to justice. According to Security Council Resolution 1595, which set up the Mehlis mission, the U.N. investigation is designed to help Lebanon's judiciary "within the framework of Lebanese sovereignty and of its legal system." However, in summarizing the investigating team's work last August, U.N. official Ibrahim Gambari admitted that Lebanese witnesses had "deep mistrust" of Lebanon's security agencies and judicial process. He recommended that "particular attention will need to be directed towards restoring credibility of the judicial and security apparatus and restoring public trust and confidence if any possible prosecution and trial is to go forward."

Because of the divided nature of Lebanon's political system, its judiciary will have a hard time bringing to justice its own nationals who participated in Hariri's killing; since Syrians are implicated, this becomes virtually impossible. However, there is also resistance in some quarters to setting up an international tribunal, the option favored by the Lebanese government, which leaves a mixed international-Lebanese court as the most likely venue for a trial. Yet its formation, if agreed, will make Lebanon a continued target of Syrian intimidation.

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Mr. Mehlis's team could get an extension to continue helping the Lebanese build a case. But the real impact of his report, which will be discussed by the Security Council on Tuesday, is that it will add a powerful political element to the legal process. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the Security Council may pass two resolutions next week against Syria -- the first in response to the Mehlis report. The second may condemn Syria's incomplete compliance with Resolution 1559, which calls for both a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of militias, including Hezbollah and Palestinian groups. Syria is said to have recently encouraged the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants in Lebanon, to help destabilize the country.

With his back to the wall, what can Mr. Assad do? He can, of course, fully comply with the U.N. But that would be political suicide amid the fingers pointed at members of his inner core. Efforts to put Syrian suspects on trial at home, meanwhile, would be rejected out of hand by the international community. At best, the Syrians can pray that eventual wrangling over a mixed or international tribunal means Lebanon must try the case itself, under Syria's threatening eye. That will not protect Syria, however, from the retaliation of hostile states once the Mehlis report has been fully digested.

Or Mr. Assad can pursue brinksmanship -- in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- assuming this will strengthen his hand at a time when there is no ready alternative to his rule. He may be right, and his regime's collapse may take some time as nobody wishes to see Syria descend into chaos. However, such an impasse only heightens the chances that Syria will face increasingly harsher sanctions and perhaps even military retaliation from the U.S. over Iraq. Mr. Assad is being offered several ways to impale himself; his only leeway is choosing which is the most painless.

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Mr. Young, a Lebanese national, is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.