The Bush administration plans to launch a new effort at the United Nations this month to tighten the squeeze on Syria and to help Lebanon rebuild politically, according to senior U.S. officials. The U.S. initiative, backed by France, comes as Lebanon filed preliminary criminal charges yesterday against four pro-Syrian generals in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The plan's two steps are part of parallel international efforts to hold the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria to account for its current and past meddling in Lebanon, and are bolstered as the U.N.-led investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination narrows its focus on Syria's allies and agents in Lebanon. The goal is to "juxtapose" greater pressure on Syria with international help for Lebanon as it works to regain sovereignty, particularly because the Syrians have not pulled out all of their intelligence agents, said a senior administration official.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held an unpublicized meeting Tuesday at the White House with the U.N. envoy for Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, French national security adviser Maurice Gourdault-Montagne and U.S. national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to discuss Lebanon and Syria, according to U.S. officials and European diplomatic sources. The French and U.N. envoys flew in specifically for the meeting.
Rice is now planning to host a meeting with European and Middle East allies to discuss new joint efforts when she attends the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in two weeks. Deliberately excluded will be Assad, who will be visiting the United Nations for the first time as head of state, U.S. officials said.
"We're creating a context that will have a supportive position for Lebanon and for Syria not to be comfortable," said a senior administration official, who, like others, requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy involved.
"If I were in Bashar's shoes, I'd look again about coming to New York. It's not going to be the spotlight he expected," he added.
U.S. and European officials say they have been pleased and surprised by the boldness of the German U.N investigator, Detlev Mehlis, in unraveling the Hariri assassination, which rocked Lebanon, unleashed a new political movement and forced Syria to end its 29-year military occupation of Lebanon in April. The investigative team has developed "rock-solid evidence," said a well-placed source familiar with the investigation.
Mehlis is due to submit his report by Sept. 17, as the U.N. General Assembly opens. Although he is expected to request an extension, sources say the arrests this week are only the first of developments based on information obtained so far.
As a result of information uncovered by the U.N. investigation, Lebanese prosecutors filed preliminary charges yesterday against four top military officials allied with Syria, according to the Associated Press. The four will appear in front of a magistrate for further questions today, a session that will determine whether formal charges are filed.
The four generals are Brig. Gen. Jamil Sayyid, former head of General Security; Brig. Gen. Ali Hajj, former director general of the Internal Security Forces; Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, former director general of military intelligence; and Brig Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, head of the presidential guards.
The State Department called on Syria yesterday to cooperate, after its early balking. "We have made it very clear that it is essential that all parties cooperate with Mr. Mehlis's investigation," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "The Lebanese people are owed an answer, they deserve an answer as to who was responsible for the assassination of Mr. Hariri. Mr. Mehlis is making good progress in his investigation."
If Damascus is found to be involved in the car bombing that killed Hariri, a billionaire who led a campaign against Syria's domination of Lebanon before his death, then the Syrians "are in trouble," warned the senior administration official.
As the investigation deepens, U.S., European and U.N. officials are talking about the next steps, including how a potential trial would unfold and whether it should be held in Lebanon, according to U.S. and European officials. Although some want Lebanon to be able to confront its past as a step toward securing its future, others fear that Lebanon's judicial system is not strong or sufficiently free from Syrian control to conduct a fair and independent trial, U.S. and European officials said.