It’s not often that I publish other people’s articles. In fact I never do. Should I? Let me know, leave a comment.
But this deserves force feeding. It’s an excellent piece from The Guardian’s Middle East Editor – an expert on Lebanon and Syria.
Great summary of why all eyes are on Detlev Mehlis, and how the Valentine’s Day massacre has changed Lebanon and Syria forever and how its effects are still being felt. Gently delivered but insightful comment and analysis too, as you’d expect from Whitaker.
Articles on Syria – especially critical ones – used to be cut out or blacked out of international papers in Damascus. As if a mouse had got to them first. That all ended when Bashar came to power and stuff like this was accessible on the net. In a couple of days time, the following words will be on the streets of Damascus – literally.
“The UN’s investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri threatens to bring down not only his successor but also Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”
“If there is a silver bullet in Mr Mehlis’ briefcase when he delivers his final report to the UN, the Americans will surely not hesitate to use it.”
Here it is:
Long shadow of the Beirut massacre
The UN’s investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri threatens to bring down not only his successor but also Bashar al-Assad of Syria, writes Brian Whitaker.
Tuesday September 6, 2005
The arrest last week of four Lebanese generals on charges of murder, attempted murder and terrorism is an unprecedented event in the Middle East: high-ranking officers have been arrested before – often on trumped-up charges after a quarrel with their political masters – but this time the arrests are the result of painstaking detective work by international investigators.
Even more significantly, it is entirely possible the arrests will lead to the downfall of not one Arab president but two: Emile Lahoud of Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
The murder and terrorism charges arise from the Valentine’s Day massacre almost eight months ago, when Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, was blown up in his car along with at least 20 other people as he drove along the Beirut seafront.
Instead of investigating thoroughly, the Lebanese security forces, who at the time were effectively under the control of Syria, blatantly destroyed evidence. In response to that, the UN security council sent its own team of investigators, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, and last week’s arrests were made by the Lebanese police at his instigation.
We do not yet know what evidence Mr Mehlis has compiled, nor what the generals have to say in their defence, but if they are eventually convicted, the political implications will be stunning.
The four men now in jail awaiting trial are Major General Jamil al-Sayyid, the former head of general security, Major General Ali Hajj, the former chief of police, Brigadier General Raymond Azar, the former head of military intelligence, and Mustafa Hamdan, head of the presidential guard.
To anyone familiar with the way things worked in Lebanon before the Syrian troops withdrew last April, it is obvious that these four security chiefs did not casually get together and decide among themselves that it would be a good idea to assassinate Rafik Hariri; if they were involved, they were acting under orders.
Technically, they were all under the command of the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, but Lahoud was not really in charge. The generals were agents of Syrian policy in Lebanon, and on all important matters took their instructions from Damascus, not the presidential palace in Beirut.
Nevertheless, Mustafa Hamdan was Lahoud’s right-hand man. Lahoud has publicly defended him, and in most democratic systems that would be enough to trigger the president’s resignation.
The situation in Lebanon, however, is more complicated, partly because Lahoud seems determined to cling on but also because Lahoud is a Christian and there are fears that his departure would upset the delicate political balance of power between the country’s religious factions.
Even so, it is difficult to see how Lahoud can survive until his term ends in 2007, especially if the newly elected government carries out its threat to have no further dealings with the president.
So far, the Syrian aspects of the murder investigation have not really come into play, but that will change on Saturday when Mr Mehlis – after a good deal of procrastination from Damascus – will travel to Syria to question five officials there.
The officials, who are described as witnesses, include Ghazi Kanaan, the interior minister, Rustom Ghazaleh, the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, and his two chief assistants, Mohammed Khallouf and Jameh Jameh.
The fifth Syrian “witness” has not been named, giving rise to speculation that the person in question is the president, Bashar al-Assad, himself. This is a logical assumption to make because of a conversation – or an altercation – that took place last year between Assad and Hariri last year.
During the 10-minute meeting, Assad allegedly threatened physical harm against Hariri and the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, saying he “would rather break Lebanon over the heads of Hariri and Jumblatt than see his word in Lebanon broken”. In the light of what happened to Hariri a few months later, it is not unreasonable for the UN to want to hear Assad’s side of the story.
Looking a little beyond the interrogations on Saturday, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where Mr Mehlis asks the Syrian authorities to arrest one or more of their security chiefs and hand them over for trial alongside the Lebanese generals. He might even attempt to summon Assad as a witness in the case. Syria would then have to decide whether to comply – and failure to do so would be a breach of security council resolution 1595, which set up the Hariri investigation.
This would dramatically shift the investigation from straightforward detective work into the realms of international politics, creating a situation reminiscent of the standoff with Libya over the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, which rumbled on for more than a decade.
It is possible, of course, that at this point diplomacy would take over from detection and some sort of compromise might be worked out in order to avoid a confrontation – though in the present climate of American politics, that is extremely unlikely.
Elements in the US have been trying to “get” Syria for years – over its support for Palestinian factions and Hizbullah, over its now-abandoned military presence in Lebanon and more recently over cross-border activity in Iraq.
One way or another, Syria has managed to fend off all these attacks with its regime relatively unscathed, but the Hariri case has presented a fresh opportunity. If there is a silver bullet in Mr Mehlis’ briefcase when he delivers his final report to the UN, the Americans will surely not hesitate to use it.