Stonewalling the UN

The key term in yesterday's United Nations Security Council resolution is "cooperation." The resolution calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to arrest, prevent the escape of and enable the interrogation of anyone wanted for questioning by the international team investigating the murder of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri. The language is clear and sharp, thanks to lessons learned from Security Council resolutions on Iraq that left too much open to interpretation. Assad's response will depend on how much support he thinks he will get from Russia and China should the question of sanctions arise, and how much support he thinks he will get from Arab countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have already objected vehemently to sanctions, but they also worked during the weekend to gain Syrian cooperation with the investigation: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak flew to Damascus while his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, went to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia want a "reasonable" level of Syrian cooperation with the investigation as well as Syrian cooperation with the United States to keep terrorists from entering Iraq via Syria in the belief that American and British pressure on Damascus would ease if Syria satisfied Washington on the Iraqi issue. Syria claims that to this end it has already stationed tens of thousands of soldiers on the Iraqi border and stepped up supervision at crossing points.

A "reasonable" level of cooperation with the investigation is much more complicated, since chief investigator Detlev Mehlis wants to question and arrest at least two of Assad's relatives: his brother Maher and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat. Bashar's relations with his brother have been tense recently, because Maher (and many others) fear that Bashar will crack and allow the investigators to harm his family. According to a Lebanese source, if Bashar had to choose between Maher and Shawkat he is likely to sacrifice his brother.

The family issue could lead Assad to stonewall the investigation or at least some of its demands. His final decision will be heavily influenced by how willing he thinks Russia and China are to veto sanctions against his country. Assad has little time left to prepare his response, as the investigation is slated to end by mid-December. However, he might be able to buy time via the commission of inquiry that he established last weekend after his talks with Mubarak and a phone call from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.