The United Nations probe on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has left Bashar Assad facing three less than favorable options: arresting, questioning and indicting the suspects; saying he didn't know that an assassination plot was being hatched in his regime and announcing that an underground cell had planned the assassination; or denying everything and saying the entire investigation is a political conspiracy engineered by the United States.
Syria, as expected, has chosen the third option.
Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhl-Allah said Friday that the UN report contains only stories propagated by forces hostile to Syria, has no decisive evidence or credible witnesses, and is part of a "major conspiracy."
These declarations make no mention of the commitment Assad made in a CNN interview, in which he said he would view anyone involved in the Hariri assassination as a traitor. Unofficial Syrian spokesmen who generally represent the government, like Dr. Amad Al-Shuweibi or Dr. Faiz Sara, have even presented the old argument that the integrity and objectivity of chief investigator Detlev Mehlis must be questioned.
It appears for now that this is Syria's line of defense:
The UN probe is a political report meant to serve American interests in the region, to justify an attack on Syria - not because of the Hariri assassination, but because of the events in Iraq. This Syrian position places the continued cooperation between Damascus and the inquiry committee in doubt. In any event, the cooperation had not been significant, as Mehlis said in the report, and was even misleading, as seen in the letter Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara sent the inquiry panel.
In addition, a line of defense like this one is meant to assure that at this stage at least, none of the senior Syrian officials mentioned in the report will be indicted or dismissed, indicating that the upper echelon of the Syrian regime will continue to protect itself and will not let any opposition forces within Syria threaten its existence.
Syria will attempt to use this defense to attempt to recruit its Arab allies - especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which had acted against American pressure on Syria up to the report's release. The question now is to what extent these two countries will be persuaded by the Syrian position and whether they will let Assad hang on his own rope.
Assad's faulty understanding of diplomatic issues is likely to show itself here: If the United States and most European countries view the UN report as an incriminating document, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will not hesitate to demand that Assad clean his stables.
The response of Lebanon, which in the last year has become a more independent country than it had been for the previous 30 years, is no less important. The demand to remove Lebanese President Emile Lahoud from his post is not a new one, as Lahoud represents the Syrian regime in Lebanon, and if it is carried out, the step will be largely symbolic.
What's more important is the way in which the Lebanese government will adopt UN Resolution 1559, which demands that militias and armed groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah and Palestinian groups, be disarmed. Hezbollah has recently understood that it must link itself to Lebanon, not Syria, and its spokesmen have declared that those responsible for Hariri's death must be indicted, while at the same time saying they oppose disarmament.
The release of the UN probe, the critical damage to Syria and Lebanon, the international pressure and the Larsen report on the implementation of Resolution 1559, which is due to be released next week, all provide the Lebanese government with an important opportunity to assert its sovereignty over all of Lebanon. The question is whether Lebanon will take advantage of the opportunity it is being offered.
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