Justice for Syria

Monday, December 19, 2005

SADDAM HUSSEIN'S challenge to international security was exceptional in part because of his flagrant defiance of resolutions by the United Nations Security Council and his equally crude actions to obstruct the work of U.N. inspectors. Now another Arab Baathist dictator, Bashar Assad, has adopted the same tactics. Not only has Mr. Assad sought to obstruct a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, but his agents in Lebanon are continuing to murder Syria's Lebanese critics.

The latest crime sets a new international standard for brazenness: On the very day that an investigating commission presented a report to the Security Council detailing Syrian complicity -- and stonewalling -- in the car bombing that killed Mr. Hariri, another car bomb took the life of Gebran Tueni. Mr. Tueni was one of Lebanon's best-known journalists and politicians and a fierce critic of Syria's interference in Lebanon. No, it isn't yet known for sure who carried out the assassination one week ago, just as the cases of Mr. Hariri and several other Lebanese activists murdered in the past 14 months have not been closed. But there are powerful reasons to share the belief of Lebanon's elected leaders, who have no doubt that Mr. Assad is systematically murdering some of their most courageous and distinguished citizens in order to defy the international coalition that forced him to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Consider the latest report of Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who has led the U.N. investigation. In October Mr. Mehlis revealed that he had collected evidence connecting senior figures of the Assad regime to the Hariri killing last Feb. 14, including the president's brother and brother-in-law. The new report says that Syria has destroyed intelligence documents related to Lebanon; that a witness who recently recanted testimony on Syrian television did so after several of his relatives had been arrested and threatened; and that a senior Syrian official supplied arms to groups in Lebanon after Mr. Hariri's death "in order to create public disorder in response to any accusations of Syrian involvement." Though several senior officials agreed, under heavy pressure from the Security Council, to be interviewed by Mr. Mehlis's team

in Vienna, they didn't include military intelligence chief Asef Shawkat, Mr. Assad's brother-in-law and the most important suspect in the investigation.

Mr. Assad seems to be calculating that his acts of terrorism eventually will force Lebanon to accept Syrian dominion again and that the Security Council will shrink from an all-out confrontation with him. If so, he might be encouraged by the council's latest resolution, approved Thursday; while it extended the term of the Mehlis investigation, it shrank from expanding it to cover the other murders and from imposing direct sanctions against Syria.

Lebanese leaders, such as Gebran Tueni, know very well that such weak measures will not stop Mr. Assad's campaign of murder. "When will this despotic regime come to its senses?" he asked in one of his last columns. He might have answered: Not until the Security Council, led by the United States, ensures that those who murder are brought to justice.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company