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High Noon for Syria

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

It's the Middle East equivalent of a "High Noon" showdown: This week, the United Nations special prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, will present his findings on who killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. If that report alleges Syrian involvement in the killing, as is widely expected, a deadly season will begin in Beirut and Damascus as the United Nations tries to bring the killers to justice.

Like a good sheriff, Mehlis isn't talking. But there are reasons to believe he has some evidence of a Syrian hand. I'm told by a source in contact with Mehlis's team that three of the four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals who were arrested in August are cooperating with the prosecutor. What's more, Mehlis has taken his investigation into the heart of Damascus, quizzing some close associates of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The next stage of the confrontation will come if Mehlis names individual Syrians. If so, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora is expected to ask the U.N. Security Council for new sanctions against Syria -- freezing the suspects' bank accounts, banning travel and otherwise pressuring the regime. The Lebanese leader will also ask the United Nations to allow Mehlis to keep working on the case for two more months.

The highest-stakes showdown is between Assad and President Bush, and not even the most devoted fan of the old Gary Cooper Western can predict how that one will turn out. The two leaders have been playing a game of chicken for months while the clock ticked down to this week's deadline.

The confrontation began with truculence on both sides. Syria sullenly withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April, but a campaign of assassination continued against anti-Syrian journalists and political figures in Beirut. The Lebanese capital today is a political ghost town, with many prominent politicians and journalists outside the country to avoid the Syrian-inspired car bombs or hit men they fear are targeting them.

An angry Bush administration, meanwhile, was actively exploring a policy of regime change several months ago. Bush was furious at Assad for not controlling the insurgents who are using Syria as a base for their attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and the president pressed his national security team to explore whether there were good alternatives to Assad.

But the administration pulled back from its regime-change enthusiasm in recent weeks, and officials now speak of the need for "policy" change. A big factor is the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, and his analysts at the National Intelligence Council. They have been warning Bush that if Assad is toppled, the result isn't likely to be better in terms of regional stability, and it could well be worse. The analysts also note that there isn't now any coherent, organized opposition to Assad.

Over the past month, Washington and Damascus have been sending feelers -- so far to no effect. Assad has traveled to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where officials told him what the United States wanted on Iraq and the Palestinian issue as the price of engagement. In late September, Assad's brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, the chief of Syrian military intelligence, visited France and talked with intelligence officials there. I'm told by one U.S. intelligence source that Shawkat hinted at major Syrian concessions if France and America would make a deal. No takers, thus far.

A warning of the bloody denouement of this drama came last week, when Syria's interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, was found dead in Damascus of a reported suicide. Almost nobody takes that at face value. One version has it that Kanaan was killed (or handed the gun and told to do the honorable thing) as a fall guy in the Hariri killing. I tend to doubt that version, because Kanaan had been close to both Hariri and Washington. Instead, I wonder if his death was a counter-coup by pro-Assad operatives in Damascus who feared Kanaan as a potential rival. I'm told that Mehlis asked to examine Kanaan's body before it was quickly buried, but was refused.

The gunslingers are facing off, and the last act is about to roll. Assad claimed in an interview with CNN last week that if Mehlis names any Syrian, that person "would be considered a traitor and most severely punished." That looks like a man trying to get ahead of the power curve, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more Damascus "suicides." If Assad's grip weakens and he can't or won't clean house in Damascus, the season of coup and counter-coup will begin for real.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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