By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 23, 2005
DAMASCUS, Syria, Oct. 22 -- Facing the prospect of international sanctions, the Syrian government said Saturday that it might allow senior intelligence officials suspected in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri to be questioned abroad, and it promised to cooperate, within limits, with the investigation.
But the government mixed conciliation with hesitation and a litany of reservations, condemning the report as a political ploy and contending officials had already fully cooperated with the U.N. inquiry. Analysts in Damascus said Saturday's moves signaled what may emerge as the shape of Syrian policy in the decisive weeks ahead: offering enough gestures to fend off international pressure but making no concessions that might imperil a government that already feels besieged.
At a news conference, Riyad Dawudi, a Foreign Ministry adviser, gave the first public response by the government, which was said to be caught off guard by the breadth of the U.N. inquiry. It came amid grumblings in the Syrian capital over the lack of forceful leadership during a crisis that has become the biggest test of Bashar Assad's five-year reign as president.
"We'll cooperate, but we'll wait to see the limits and elements of this cooperation," Dawudi said.
He signaled that the government might be willing to send senior officials abroad for questioning in the investigation.
"If there's a necessity, we will see according to the circumstances that are going to be put before us," he said. "If there is any demand coming from the commission, we will study, we will discuss with the commission and we might agree."
The report by the probe's German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, stopped short of directly blaming Assad for the assassination, but it contended that the Feb. 14 killing of Hariri and 22 others could not have happened without the approval of top Syrian security officials and their Lebanese intelligence counterparts.
The report names individuals from a cross section of the Syrian government -- civilian and military officials, politicians and intelligence figures, and officials from the Sunni Muslim majority and Assad's own minority Alawite community. The report said Syria's foreign minister lied in a letter to investigators -- a charge Dawudi denied -- and cited one witness as implicating Assad's powerful brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, a member of the government's inner circle.
Dawudi questioned the credibility of one of the report's named witnesses and said other testimony amounted to hearsay. He said the investigation relied on the accounts of Lebanese witnesses who were anti-Syrian, giving the report a political cast that will allow it to be manipulated by Syria's foes, namely the United States and France.
"What is in the report are pure allegations," Dawudi said. "Everything is based on a presumption that the very presence of the Syrian security apparatus and military forces in Lebanon and the impact Syria had in Lebanon at that time implies -- and this is an induction done in the report -- implies that this assassination plot could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services. And this is just an allegation."
The Syrian government had reportedly expected a more favorable portrayal in Mehlis's inquiry because it allowed its officials to be interviewed. "They were shocked, they were totally shocked by the content of the report," said Ibrahim Hamidi, a well-connected journalist in Damascus for the leading pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. "They expected Mehlis to at least mention they were cooperating. Of course, they did not expect him to go this high, to leak all these names."
Analysts in Damascus said the leadership appears divided between two factions -- one urging more cooperation, sensing the depth of the crisis, and the other believing that the government can weather the turmoil and that any degree of cooperation will likely only bring more demands. Some in the Syrian capital have been struck by the government's response. Assad has yet to comment publicly on the report, perhaps out of fear of creating an atmosphere of crisis.
"There was no new information, no opinion, nothing about what will happen in the future, no real opinion of what the government of Syria has decided or thinks about this report," said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Baath Party reformer and editor of a popular Web site that tracks Syrian politics. "What is this? This is no longer a technical issue."
"We need politicians to address the people of Syria -- this is what happened, this is the pressure we are under, this is what might happen in the future, this is what we have in mind," Abdel Nour added. "We want to know who's leading us."
The United States and France are expected to put resolutions critical of Syria before the U.N. Security Council, which will meet Tuesday to discuss the report. In a statement broadcast Saturday, Hariri's son, Saad, who heads the largest anti-Syrian bloc in Lebanon's parliament, repeated his faction's call for an international tribunal to try suspects in his father's killing.
"Reaching justice presents the Arab and international community with additional responsibilities that prompt us to urge them to continue all aspects of the investigation in the crime and refer it to an international court," he said from his home in Saudi Arabia in his first public reaction to the Mehlis's report. "We do not seek revenge. We seek justice."
The Syrian response is a matter of much debate in Damascus. Abdel Nour predicted that the government would stick to a style of foreign policy engineered by Assad's father, Hafez, who ruled Syria from 1970 to his death in 2000.
Others suspect the Syrian government is inclined to strike a deal, meeting U.S. demands to cut support to militant Palestinian factions and to the Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah. Syria could also answer calls to take more steps to close the border with Iraq to foreign fighters. Whether the United States would accept a deal remains in question, increasing the speculation here that more upheaval is ahead.
"The entire regime is in the neck of the bottle. They cannot do anything," said Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer and opposition activist. "Somebody has to take a step."