By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005
Syria is trying to negotiate a deal to prevent punitive action by the United Nations if, as is widely expected, the Damascus government is linked to the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, according to U.S. and European officials.
Over the past month, the government of President Bashar Assad has been inquiring about the potential for a deal, roughly equivalent to what Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi did to end tough international sanctions imposed for his country's role in the 1988 midair bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the officials said. Gaddafi eventually agreed to hand over two intelligence officials linked to the bombing for an international trial, a move that began Libya's political rehabilitation.
But the United States, France and U.N. officials have all recently signaled to Syria that they will not compromise on the completion of a full investigation into the slaying of Lebanese reformer Rafiq Hariri -- or subsequent legal steps, wherever the probe leads, the officials said.
The U.N. investigation moved this week to Syria, where Detlev Mehlis, the chief investigator, interviewed the two most recent Syrian intelligence chiefs in Lebanon and their aides in the probe into the bombing that killed Hariri and 19 others as they drove through Beirut, the capital.
Since the arrest last month of four top Lebanese security officials with close ties to Damascus, Syria has been concerned, said a U.S. official familiar with the overtures. Mehlis, who has taken the investigation far deeper, far faster than initially expected, "is coming up with stuff that is making people in Damascus nervous," the official said. Like others, the official would discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity involved.
Overtures from Damascus have included vague suggestions of a willingness to hand over certain unidentified security individuals in exchange for guarantees that any subsequent trial would not try to point fingers any higher in Syria, according to several Western officials familiar with Syria's moves.
On Monday, a senior State Department official said there was "universal support" for a fully independent investigation "unfettered by any attempt to influence the result. The outcome must follow the facts where they lead." He spoke after the first meeting at the United Nations of a core group of nations working to help Lebanon end years of political domination by Syria.
The investigation has been facilitated by an unexpected flow of information from Lebanese security sources as well as at least two well-placed Syrian officials, according to Western sources familiar with the probe. Some have been moved to Europe, the sources said.
For Assad, a former ophthalmologist who inherited power after the death of his father in 2000, the stakes of the U.N. investigation are high -- and extend well beyond the probe of the Hariri killing.
"Bashar is moving toward the moment of truth, the defining moment of his presidency," said a senior European diplomat familiar with the U.N. probe. "The Mehlis report is due on October 25, and if he reports that this goes all the way to the top of Damascus, there will be a political earthquake."
If the U.N. investigation does name Syrian officials, Assad will be under pressure to arrest and try the alleged perpetrators -- or face international condemnation and punitive actions such as economic or diplomatic sanctions, say U.S. and European officials.
U.S. and European officials are already discussing a new U.N. resolution to ensure that anyone cited or indicted as a result of the U.N. investigation is formally held to account. "If the investigations lead to evidence of the involvement of a high-ranking official, [he] should pay for it, no matter how high-ranking," the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in an interview published yesterday in the Arabic daily al-Hayat.
Solana, who participated in the core group talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, also said it would be "very bad news" if Syria were implicated. "We will have to seriously consider the repercussions of such conclusions," he said.
But turning over some of his own officials could also jeopardize Assad's tenuous hold on power and risk his security staff taking action against him, say U.S. and European officials.
One European official said Assad might have avoided some of the focus and pressure on his government if he had acted shortly after the Hariri assassination, which sparked a political upheaval inside Lebanon and forced Syria to end its 29-year military occupation of its smaller neighbor.
In a further step in the investigation, Lebanon arrested four more men yesterday accused of facilitating communication in the assassination plot, the Associated Press reported. Court officials said the four are accused of withholding information, forgery and providing cell phone access to people involved in the attack. The investigation has studied thousands of calls made before and after the assassination. Six other Lebanese underwent formal questioning this week, the Associated Press reported.