Assad Ahmadinejad Nasrallah
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah meeting in Damascus on February 25, 2010. Photo by AP
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Syria played a major role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, and the UN probe into the murder is wrongly absolving it of guilt, Western intelligence sources familiar with the probe told Haaretz.

The United Nations tribunal investigating the murder is expected to indict senior Hezbollah operatives for the killing, possibly even next month. But Western sources said the assassination had in fact been a joint venture between Syria and Hezbollah that served both their interests.

"There's no doubt Syrian President Bashar Assad was involved in the assassination," said one source. "Hariri had launched a process aimed at kicking the Syrians out of Lebanon, he was running for reelection as prime minister and was thought to have a good chance of winning. Above all, he recruited American, French and Saudi support for the moderate axis in Lebanon. Assad had every reason to get rid of him."

The UN probe initially concluded that Syria was probably behind the murder, but this was based mainly on an analysis of who had the strongest motive rather than on hard evidence. New evidence obtained subsequently - first and foremost an analysis of cell phone data that revealed several people likely involved in the killing - pointed instead to Hezbollah as the culprit, though even this evidence is largely circumstantial.

Letting Damascus off easy

As far as is known, the probe's current chairman, Canadian Daniel Bellemare, does not intend to accuse Syria of involvement - in contrast to the conclusion reached by the panel's first chairman, Detlev Mehlis of Germany.

Five months before the murder, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which demanded that all foreign forces - i.e., the Syrians - leave Lebanon. Assad believed Hariri had been involved in this resolution, which was jointly sponsored by the United States and France.

Abdel Halim Khaddam, who had served as Assad's deputy until he fell out with the rest of the regime and left Syria, later related that Assad had openly made a threat against Hariri during their last meeting before the murder, saying, "Of anyone tries to throw us out of Lebanon, we'll smash Lebanon over his head."

On October 12, 2005 - shortly after he was questioned by the UN commission, and eight days before Mehlis published his report - Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan was found dead in his office. Kanaan had presided over Syrian intelligence in Lebanon for two decades and was considered Syria's strong man in Beirut. Damascus claimed he had committed suicide, but Western intelligence agencies believe he was killed by the Syrian regime because he knew too much about Hariri's murder. It is hard to believe, Western sources said, that anyone could have committed suicide by shooting himself three times in the back.