Syria Feels Heat Over U.N. Report

Lebanese demonstrate at a gathering in Beirut after Syria was directly linked to the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Lebanese demonstrate at a gathering in Beirut after Syria was directly linked to the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. (By Hussein Malla -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 22, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria, Oct. 21 -- A day after its release, a U.N. report that implicated senior Syrian officials in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri escalated pressure on the already beleaguered government here and ignited renewed demands that Lebanon's pro-Syrian president step down.

The publication of the report on the deaths of Hariri and 22 other people in a car bombing in Beirut on Feb. 14 unleashed a reaction seldom seen in the Middle East. The 54-page document was read in its entirety on al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network; other stations broadcast hours of coverage Friday on the report and its fallout. To many people here, its publication marked a turning point in Middle East politics, signaling a looming confrontation with an uncertain outcome.

"This is simply the beginning," said Farid El-Khazen, a Lebanese lawmaker and political scientist. "There is little room for maneuver left for the Syrians now. They have to cooperate fully to save themselves from more isolation or they opt for rejection of the report, claiming it is all political. Syria doesn't have a middle-ground option."

In Damascus, some Syrian government supporters were unusually open in expressing fear about the repercussions of the inquiry, which President Bush cited Friday in calling on the U.N. Security Council to take action.

"The government is rather cornered. Essentially, what the government can do is very limited," said Georges Jabbour, a Syrian legislator and former presidential adviser. "I am not quite optimistic."

The report stopped short of directly blaming President Bashar Assad or members of his inner circle, where his relatives occupy the most sensitive posts. But it bluntly said that the investigation's leads pointed directly at involvement by Syrian security officials in the assassination and insisted that Syria clarify unresolved questions.

The report said Syria's longtime foreign minister, Farouk Charaa, lied in a letter to investigators. It also cited one witness as implicating Assad's powerful brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat. Another claim that Shawkat, Assad's brother Maher and other senior officials played a role in planning the assassination was deleted from the final report.

With a mix of anger and trepidation, Syrian officials condemned the findings, although their response was muted on the Muslim Sabbath. Most hewed to a common line: that the investigation relied on often unnamed witnesses of questionable character, that the report was tailored to meet U.S. objections to Syrian policy and that its findings would never hold up in a court of law. The information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah, called the investigation "a political statement."

"It is impossible that a fair court would accept a report like this, relying as it does on mere talk," he said in a news release.

The most immediate fallout was growing pressure in Lebanon for the resignation of the country's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. The president rebuffed demands that he step down in August after four Lebanese generals were arrested on suspicion of participating in the assassination.

The U.N. investigation, led by the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, found that Lahoud received a phone call minutes before the blast from the brother of a prominent member of a pro-Syrian group, who in turn called one of the country's generals. Lahoud's office said it categorically denied receiving such a call.

In a signal Lahoud has no intention of resigning, the statement by his office said the charge was part of a months-long campaign against him "and the national responsibilities he shoulders and will continue to do so at this delicate stage in Lebanon's history."

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