Analysis / A Two-month Reprieve

The details in the Detlev Mehlis probe into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri are not sufficient to issue an "indictment" against Syria or against senior figures in the Syrian and Lebanese governments.

That is why Mehlis received a two-month extension - in the hope that Syria would agree to change its attitude and proffer to Mehlis the heads of Bashar Assad's associates.

But why was an incomplete interim report necessary? The answer lies in Washington and Beirut. Washington needs some sort of incriminating evidence against Syria to goad Damascus, regarded as abetting terror in Iraq, by means of the UN Security Council.

The Syria Accountability Act, which allowed President George W. Bush to impose partial economic sanctions, is not harsh enough, according to the U.S. administration. U.S. trade with Syria is about $300 million a year, to Europe's more than $7 billion. Bush therefore needs European cooperation to get Syria's attention. Such cooperation, forthcoming so far mainly between France, Germany and Washington, contributed to the passing of UN Resolution 1559 and the decision to launch an international investigation into Hariri's murder.

These countries may make do with Mehlis' interim report to support a proposal for sanctions against Syria, but the question still remains as to how China and Russia will respond. As opposed to Iraq, influence over the Syrian regime does not impact other areas of the Middle East. But Syria has a close friend named Iran, which in turn is close to both China and Russia. It also has a few more distant friends, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, some of which are heavily invested in Syria and exert influence over U.S. policy. The Arab League is marginal when it comes to Washington's decisions, but now, with the latter encouraging the League to recognize the political structure in Iraq, the U.S. might take the League's positions into consideration to a greater extent.

Another element Washington must consider in attempting to garner support for sanctions against Syria involves Lebanon. Even a partial indictment against Syria might serve the Lebanese government in demanding the removal of the last vestiges of Syria's presence in their country, especially their president Emile Lahoud. Such an indictment also makes things uncomfortable for Hezbollah; even without firm evidence, the organization does not want to seem to support (or be supported by) those responsible for the murder of the Lebanese prime minister.

But will sanctions against Syria serve Lebanon? Lebanese pundits have expressed concern that Syria will respond by closing its borders with Lebanon, leaving it with no access to other Arab countries, a step it already took this year.

In the midst of all these considerations, Washington may give another chance to the Arab countries to persuade Syria to mend its ways, especially regarding Iraq. Thus, Mehlis' extension to complete the investigation might also serve as an extension for Syria to meet Washington's demands.