The Guardian 2 November, 2005

UN Syria report sets off firestorm

Dan Margolis

UNITED NATIONS: The release of a "partial report" pointing to possible Syrian involvement in the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has set off a political firestorm. Syria and many others criticised the report for numerous shortcomings and said it is motivated by Washington's desire to expand the Iraq war into Syria.

Detlev Mehlis, the lead investigator in the UN Independent Investigation Commission set up in June to investigate the case, presented the report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on October 19, but its contents were leaked to the press. The United States and France immediately began to push for a UN resolution against Syria.

In an interview on Arabic-language television, Bush refused to rule out military intervention, calling it a last resort as he did with Iraq a few years ago if Syria did not cooperate with the investigation more fully. He also made a number of other demands unrelated to the report, including ending all Syrian involvement with Lebanon, expelling Palestinian groups from Damascus, and stopping the alleged passage of insurgents between Syria and Iraq.

Mehlis formally presented the report to the UN Security Council on October 25. Described as "partial" because the investigation is still ongoing, it paints a picture of Syrian military involvement based on "converging evidence." It further states that Syria has not been cooperating with, and has even obstructed, the investigation.

However, Mehlis said the report was far from complete, and that more time is needed to finish it. The Security Council agreed to extend the commission's charter until December 15, although some observers said even that date might not allow sufficient time for a full inquiry.

Fayssal Mekdad, the Syrian ambassador, expressed extreme reservations about the report, saying it was "clearly influenced by the political climate prevailing in Lebanon at the time of the incident." He said it "accused Syria even before the end of the investigation".

Alluding to the Bush administration, he wondered aloud about the objectives of those who wanted to rush to judgment, and suggested the haste was motivated by "extremist positions".

Bush's October 6 speech at a meeting of the National Endowment for Democracy could easily give rise to such concerns. Referring to Syria as a regime that has "the goal of hurting America and moderate Muslim governments, and use[s] terrorist propaganda", Bush later referred to Syria and Iran as "enemies of civilization" and implied the US was prepared to use military force against them.

Critics charge the report has numerous flaws, including a simplistic logic that argues along these lines: Hariri's assassination was highly organised; only a military or secret police can be so organised; Syria's military was in Lebanon; therefore, Syrian military leaders carried out the plot.

The veracity of the witnesses is also suspect. Syria pointed out that one witness had been arrested for forgery.

Syria's National Progressive Front, which includes the Syrian Communist Party, said, "The committee was under the effect of pressure by circles interested in inflicting harm on Syria to serve political ends which are related to plots against the region."

According to Mehlis, Syria refused to allow witnesses to be questioned outside of the country. The Syrian ambassador replied that had the investigating commission insisted, Syria would have allowed it. At a press conference in UN headquarters, a reporter from al-Arabiya television asked Mehlis if his commission would now request this, but Mehlis did not give a definite answer.

When asked whether the investigation implicated Syria as a state, as President Bush claims, or if it is an investigation of individuals, Mehlis said it was the latter.

Syria has agreed to help the investigation in any way possible, and its president, Bashar Assad, said his country is ready to pursue "any individual linked to this crime by decisive evidence and bring him to justice."

While Syria and Mehlis's team, as well as Lebanon, disagree over the report, they agree on one thing: more time is needed to complete the investigation. This flies in the face of a US and French push for speedy punitive action against Syria.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which includes both Syria and Lebanon, said in a statement that the investigations should "take their due course and be completed while avoiding resorting to any measures based on a preliminary and ongoing process, as hasty actions would result in aggravating an already volatile area."

The OIC said it opposes any sanctions or collective punishment of any nation, and it welcomes Syria's promised cooperation.

On October 26 a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin, said, "Russia will exert everything necessary to avoid any attempts to impose sanctions on Syria."

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