Background on Syria and the Rafiq Hariri Investigation

Compiled by Jefferson Morley Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005; 10:55 AM

Why is Syria in the news?

U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis issued a report after his investigation into the Syrian government's role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri last February.

What does the report say?

Mehlis delivered his findings to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Anan on Oct. 20.  His report found that top Syrian and Lebanese officials were involved in the detailed plans for Hariri's assassination over the course of many months.  The report says the complex plot "could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security forces."

What will be the impact of the U.N. report?

It is still unclear what effect it would have on the government of President Bashir Assad. Some believe such a finding could call into question Assad's legitimacy and his grip on power.   Many in the United States and Europe expect these findings to increase international pressure on the Syrian government.

No members of Assad's government were directly implicated by name in the report, but Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa was cited for attempting to interfere with the investigation. Syria's interior minister, who had been questioned by Mehlis, committed suicide on Oct. 12, according to the Syrian government.

Why would the Syrians kill a former Lebanese prime minister?

Syria has long dominated the political system of Lebanon. Assad's father, Hafez Assad, was a secular dictator who ruled Syria with an iron fist from 1971 until his death in 2000. He intervened in Lebanon to end a vicious multisided civil war that killed thousands in the 1980s. Hariri, who had initially collaborated with the Syrians out of necessity, was contemplating leading his country to greater independence from Syria when he and 22 others were killed on a Beirut street by a sophisticated remote control bomb.

What was the reaction in Lebanon to Hariri's assassination?

 The outraged Lebanese population suspected Syria was behind Hariri's death and staged massive demonstrations that ultimately forced the Syrians to withdraw their military forces from the country and to cooperate with the U.N. investigation.

What role is the United States playing?

The Bush administration has a complicated relationship with Syria. On the one hand, it has called for democratic reforms in the one-party governments of the Arab world and supported the Lebanese demonstrations that led to Syria's withdrawal from the country. On the other hand, the United States reportedly turned over suspected terrorists to the Syrian security forces for interrogation and torture after the Sept. 11 attacks. Meanwhile, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has little support in Syria and Washington has criticized Syria for not controlling its border with Iraq and for harboring anti-American insurgents.

What does the Syrian government say?

Syria denies any involvement in Hariri's assassination. Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha said earlier this week: "We are absolutely categoric in saying we had nothing to do with Hariri."

Is Israel involved?

Israel complains that the Assad government harbors Palestinian organizations that support terrorism. It also has a long-standing border dispute with Syria over the Golan Heights which Israel captured in 1967 after it was attacked by its Arab neighbors. Israel's major concern in Lebanon is Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party that collaborated with the Syrians. Israel, like the United States and France, has demanded that Hezbollah disarm. The group has ignored the call, saying that its presence deters a repeat of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Lebanon's other political parties, concerned about a civil war, are not pressing the call for disarmament.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company