The U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded Monday that Syria expand its cooperation with an investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri or face unspecified "further action," a veiled reference to economic sanctions.
The council's resolution, adopted by a 15 to 0 vote, also empowers the council to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on anyone suspected of involvement in the Valentine's Day killings of Hariri and 22 others. The United States, France and Britain, the resolution's chief sponsors, dropped a provision Monday that explicitly threatened President Bashar Assad's government with sanctions, a change required to secure the votes of council members Russia, China and Algeria.
The high-profile meeting, attended by the foreign ministers of the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and six other countries, was a major diplomatic blow to Syria, subjecting Damascus to the most intrusive international investigation of a member state since U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The consensus displayed Monday puts Syria under greater pressure than at any time since the Assad dynasty seized power in Damascus 34 years ago, said U.S., European and Arab diplomats. Unlike in past wars and crises, Syria appears to have no allies and little ability to ease or divert the international scrutiny, regional experts said.
"This is a moment of truth for Bashar Assad," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian analyst at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "How he handles this crisis will be definitive. It will either bring about the regime's collapse or isolation or, to survive, he will have to completely reinvent the regime."
The resolution granted the United Nations' chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis of Germany, the authority to go anywhere in Syria, demand any documents, and interview any individual, including Assad, inside Syria or abroad. It was passed under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is legally binding and which is traditionally invoked before imposing sanctions, or authorizing military action, to compel a country's cooperation.
Mehlis arrived back in Beirut within hours of the resolution's passage. U.S. and U.N. officials expect him to quickly press Damascus with interview requests.
The council resolution echoed many of the key findings in Mehlis's Oct. 21 interim report on his probe, highlighting what he called "converging evidence" that senior Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials plotted to execute Hariri. They also noted Mehlis's conclusion that Syrian officials sought to "mislead" investigators and that there is "probable cause" to believe that the crime could not have been committed without approval of top-ranking Syrian security officials.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that Syria's failure to cooperate with Mehlis will lead to "serious consequences," a phrase that is often used in the Security Council to mean sanctions or even military force. The U.S. is pressing Syria to change its behavior on a broader range of issues, including its alleged support for Palestinian militants and insurgents in Iraq.
"With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community -- through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors, and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East," Rice told the council. "Now, the Syrian government must make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior."
Syria has vigorously denied any role in the assassination, and on Saturday it said it had launched its own probe of the killing.
Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Charaa, told the council Monday that Syria would "fully cooperate," but charged that Mehlis had launched his investigation with the "set intention to point a finger of accusation at Syria."
Charaa said it was unfair for Mehlis to blame Syria by concluding that such a complex terrorist operation could not have been undertaken without the knowledge of Syrian officials. He cited major terrorist attacks, including the Sept. 11, 2001, strike against the United States, to show that terrorist groups have carried out difficult clandestine operations on their own. "This means that all security forces in all countries of the world that have . . . suffered terrorist events may be implicated in such crimes."
The council's unanimity Monday papered over differences that are likely to resurface if the U.S. makes a fresh push for sanctions in the coming months, U.N. diplomats said.
Russia, China and Algeria remain staunchly opposed to sanctioning Damascus, calling it premature to consider punitive measures before the U.N. investigation is concluded and suspects have been convicted of a crime -- which could take years. Ministers from these countries made it clear that any decision to impose sanctions on the government of Syria would require another decision by the Security Council, where both Russia and China wield veto power.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that the resolution was "not ideal" but that it underscored the council's commitment to holding Hariri's killers accountable. Algeria's foreign minister, Mohammed Bedjaoui, cautioned against "brandishing the hasty threat of sanctions" before anyone is found guilty. He urged the council to consider Syria "part of the solution and not a part of the problem."
Still, the unanimous vote was a "real eye-opener" that will catch attention throughout the Middle East, said Rami Khouri, a leading Arab commentator and editor of Lebanon's Daily Star. "This will cement the view that the Syrians are really now alone, unable to play powers off each other."
Under the new resolution, the Syrian regime is required to detain Syrian officials or individuals implicated by the U.N. investigation in the Hariri assassination. The probe has already named Assad's brother, Maher Assad, and brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, as central suspects in a complicated plot.
Mehlis is also empowered to notify the Security Council before the Dec. 15 due date of his final report if Syria or other parties fail to cooperate. An allegation of Syrian obstruction by Mehlis could trigger tougher action by the council, including possible economic sanctions, officials said.
Adding to the pressure, Syria faces the possibility of a second resolution to follow up on a U.N. report last week concluding that Syria is not fully complying with Resolution 1559, which sought to end three decades of Syrian domination of Lebanon. The resolution, adopted last year, required Damascus to withdraw all military and intelligence forces from the country.
Wright reported from Washington.