Saturday, October 22, 2005

Hariri's ghost returns to haunt Assad-Economist

Economist's online edition has a fascinating account of the U.N. Rafik Hariri assassination investigation and its political fallout for Syria:

A FABLE is often told to explain the Middle East to outsiders. A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog replies that the scorpion might sting and kill him. The scorpion reassures: “But if I do, we both die.” The frog agrees, and the scorpion stings him midstream. Why, asks the drowning frog of the drowning scorpion? “Because this is the Middle East.”

When Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February in Beirut, some argued that the Syrian regime was such an obvious culprit that it could not possibly have done it. Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon, had become a vocal opponent of the decades-long Syrian occupation. What regime could be so obviously heavy-handed as to murder a prominent opponent with a truck bomb in broad daylight?

Syria protested, and still protests, its innocence but the bleak view of Middle East politics encapsulated in that fable seemed to be confirmed by a report on Hariri's death that was delivered to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday October 20th, pointing the finger directly at the highest levels of the Syrian government. Most importantly, it has fingered Asef Shawkat, who is Syria’s military-intelligence chief and brother-in-law to Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. emerged on Friday that the name of the Syrian president's brother, Maher Assad, had been edited out of the report shortly before it had been presented to the Security Council. The report originally quoted an unnamed Syrian witness as saying the president's two relatives were among a group of Syrian and Lebanese officials who decided to assassinate Hariri at a meeting in Damascus in late 2004. The edited version gives the witness's account of the meeting but omits the two top Syrians' names.

In addition, the report hints that Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon, might also have been in on the plot. But intriguingly, it did not even mention Ghazi Kanaan, the former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, who Syrian officials said committed suicide on October 12th. His death, coming so soon before the UN report's submission, had seemed suspiciously convenient, as if perhaps he had been chosen as fall guy over the killing of Hariri.

Mr Assad and Mr Lahoud deny any involvement, of course. But the UN report claims that Mr Lahoud received a phone call from one of the conspirators minutes before the bombing. It also claims there is evidence that Mr Assad's brother-in-law and top aide Mr Shawkat forced a Palestinian militant to claim responsibility in a video recorded weeks before the assassination. The report also says the plot would not have been possible without help from Lebanon’s own spies and soldiers. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals have already been arrested, one having allegedly told a witness, shortly before the killing: “We are going to send him on a trip—bye bye, Hariri.”

Could the affair destabilise the Syrian regime? Though American neo-conservatives loathe Syria, and it was rumoured to be the next stop for America’s army after Iraq, undermining Mr Assad could be a dicey proposition. The local opposition to the regime, such as it is in a police state, is fragmented. On October 16th the groups joined briefly to issue a declaration calling for democratic reform. But they are far from constituting a group that could take power if Mr Assad should fall. America has its hands full in Iraq, and knows that Syria can help ruin talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It must think carefully over just how tough it wants to get with prickly, difficult Syria.